Friday, April 22, 2005

Volcano eruption responsible of poisoning well water?

IDGIKOUNDZI, Comoros - Fears that volcanic ash poisoned drinking water mounted on Tuesday among 10,000 Comoros islanders who fled an eruption that poured black rain into wells supplying their homes.

Peering into a once sparkling pool in a circular stone tank high on the slopes of Mount Karthala, villagers said they were afraid even to wash in the now greyish water before their daily Muslim prayers. "We are living as if there is a drought," said Abdurahman Mkoufunde, 45, one of the few men who stayed behind to watch over the village of Idgikoundzi, abandoned by 4000 people who fled after Sunday's eruption.

"If the water is dirty, the government will have to do something," he said in the village of corrugated iron shacks now inhabited mainly by goats and chickens, where residents rely on tanks to catch rainwater for drinking. Karthala erupted after more than a decade of silence on Sunday, causing parts of the sides of the giant crater at the 2,361-metre summit to collapse into a cauldron of lava and hurling burning boulders into the sky that streaked like shooting stars. So far, the 230,000 people on the island of Grande Comore, about 300km off east Africa, have been spared their worst fear: that a river of lava will bulldoze villages on mountainsides blanketed with tropical foliage, or release a cloud of deadly gas as it did a century ago, killing 17 people.

However, there are growing concerns that water may have been contaminated on the largest island in the Indian Ocean Comoros archipelago, a former French colony that lacks the equipment necessary to conduct tests for pollutants like heavy metals. "We're not sure whether we should allow people to drink the water or not," said vulcanologist Hamidou Soule.

"We have to take samples and send them overseas for analysis." A senior official at the country's utility company said on Sunday they were concerned that volcanic dust might have seeped into groundwater, threatening to contaminate supplies piped to about 50,000 people living in the capital Moroni. Defence Minister Houmed Msaidie told Reuters there were no immediate plans to distribute water to the villages in the affected area.

The people who stayed on have relied for drinking water from a few tanks sufficiently sheltered from the ash. Residents who fled on Sunday waited for word of whether it would be safe to return to their homes on the southern flank of the mountain, where crusted lava spewed by past eruptions tumbles into the foaming ocean. Most of those who left stayed with family members on other parts of the island, dominated by Karthala's unpredictable peak.

Skies above the summit were clear on Tuesday, but Soule said there continued to be a raised level of seismic activity in the bowels of the mountain. France plans to send specialists from the island of La Reunion to help assess volcanic activity, said the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs.

It said the UN Children's Fund had bought 10 tonnes of rice for the displaced. Karthala, which soars above vanilla vine plantations clinging to its fertile slopes, last erupted on July 11, 1991, hurling boulders for several km but hurting nobody.

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