Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The volcanic eruption of Karthala

The Karthala Volcano forms most of the landmass of Grande Comore (also called Ngazidja), the main island of the Union of the Comoros. The volcano is one of the largest volcanos in activity in the world. Over the last two hundreds years, it has developed an eruption every eleven years in average. The majority of the eruptions were magmatic, resulting in lava flow on both sides of the island. Phreatic eruptions also occurred, projecting vapour, gas and rocks in the periphery of the summit.

The Karthala Volcano has been showing signs of increasing activity over the past week. This activity has escalated further since Saturday 16 April in late afternoon, with clouds of ash and smoke affecting a number of villages in the Dimani and Pidjani regions in the eastern part of the island. Reports also indicate that some rivers flowing on the flank of the volcano have become polluted with volcanic debris.

On Sunday 17 April, populations from these villages began to flee in fear of gas and lava flow. According to the local authorities, as many as 10,000 people may have fled from their homes in the eastern region in order to seek refuge in other parts of the island.

On the same day in the afternoon, the authorities organised an overflight of the volcano with support from Comoros Aviation, a private company, which observed a lava flow confined within the volcano. A second overflight was organised on Monday morning, which confirmed that the lava remains confined within the crater.

Based on the information available, authorities are making a number of hypotheses regarding the evolution of the volcanic activity: 1) a subterraneous lava flow may spew in the sea and increase the dimension of a small island, which has emerged at 15 km off the coast during recent months, or 2) the lava may disgorge directly on the flank of the volcano from cracks in the crater. Further data is required to explain the volcanic activity and forecast its development with more accuracy.

The majority of the populations fleeing from their villages are seeking refuge among family members in other parts of the island. The authorities have dispatched rapid assessment teams to ascertain the number of affected populations as well as their needs. The results from these assessments are not yet known.

The authorities have issued a warning advising populations to avoid the affected areas and exposure to gases and ashes.

The authorities have also been providing emergency assistance to populations in affected areas. This includes the establishment of a mobile command post to help coordinate on-site assistance operations, the mobilisation of approximately 50 vehicles for transporting populations fleeing from their homes and the dispatch of two medical teams.

UN Agencies have provided four vehicles in support of government's activities. UNICEF has made personnel available to strengthen national capacities to coordinate assistance operations, and has purchased ten tons of rice for distribution to displaced populations. It is also preparing to provide further assistance, such as non-food items, essential drugs and education materials, pending further information on the needs.

The French Government is planning to send a team of specialists from La RĂ©union in order to assist with the assessment of the volcanic activity.
As of Monday 18 April, the authorities have not requested any additional external assistance.

The government of the Union of the Comoros has a national disaster preparedness and response plan, which specifies roles and responsibilities of the government departments and their partners in the event of a disaster. This plan has recently been prepared with support from the OCHA Regional Office for Southern Africa.

Disaster response coordination falls under responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and Territorial Security, which manages relief operations through a Central Command Post. International support is coordinated by the UN Resident Coordinator. The OCHA Regional Office is maintaining regular contact with the Resident Coordinator in order to determine additional coordination support needs.

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