Saturday, December 03, 2005

Assistance given to displaced people in Comoros

Aid operations are now starting to assist the thousands displaced by this weeks eruption of the volcano Mount Karthala in Comoros. More than a third of the population of Grande Comore may have been displaced by the eruption, which mainly caused damages to water reservoirs, agriculture and livestock on the main Comoran island.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) today announced that it was "joining in emergency relief operations" in the small Indian Ocean country of Comoros, where a volcanic eruption may have displaced more than a third of the total population. Several UN agencies were now assisting national authorities in providing clean water, clearing away dust and debris and assessing damage to agriculture and livestock.There are concerns about the impact of pollution due to volcanic debris on public health, agriculture and livestock for some 250,000 people living in 76 villages in the areas covered by the ash and smoke, OCHA said in a statement today.

Approximately 175,000 people were said to have "inadequate access to clean drinking water due to the contamination of water tanks." Affected populations had also been inhaling volcanic dust since the eruptions, OCHA warned. Many Comorans - including the elderly and children - were now "having trouble breathing freely," the UN agency stated. The eruption is estimated to have displaced between 180,000 and 250,000 people, out of a total population of about 670,000 living on the islands between continental Africa and Madagascar.

In response, national authorities had prioritised delivering clean water, cleaning water tanks and water analysis; cleaning streets, public facilities and private buildings and preventing dust inhalation; and providing technical expertise for an environmental impact assessment and establishing a system to monitor the impact of the eruption over time.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) was further supporting the Comoran government's delivery of clean water by providing water tanks, fuel for trucks, and financial resources to cover operational costs. On average, 200,000 litres of water had been delivered each day. UNICEF had also supported the cleaning of all schools and is ensuring their water supply.Meanwhile, the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) was providing technical expertise to assess public health and water and sanitation conditions. Authorities still need to map which areas of the island that are intoxicated by volcano debris.

Such mapping was important to determine whether some of the large number of displaced could return to their homes. Additionally, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), together with UNICEF and WHO, were to provide material support such as computers and office equipment to the National Emergency Operations Centre. Finally, UNOSAT - a UN agency offering the humanitarian community access to satellite imagery - was working to provide accurate images of the Karthala volcano area in the next days.

The images are to "help ascertain the scope of damages." The Karthala volcano has been erupting since 24 November, with projections of ash and smoke that spread volcanic dust and debris over extensive areas of the Grande Comore, including the capital, Moroni. Although the eruptions receded after the initial day's eruptions, the Karthala Volcanological Observatory warns that the level of seismic activity remains high and that a lava lake is forming in the volcano's crater. An eruption of the volcano earlier this year, in mid-April 2005, also led to water contamination and the UN had to assist the government in providing clean water.

Mount Karthala, one of the world's largest active volcanoes, is the southernmost and largest of the two volcanoes that form Grande Comore Island (Njazidja) in the Indian Ocean Comoros archipelago. It is documented to have erupted more than 20 times since the 1800s. Mount Karthala has a great potential of destruction, causing Comoran authorities and humanitarian agencies always to be on high alert. The volcano last erupted in July 1991. At that occasion, no persons were killed although tens of thousands of villagers had to flee their homes.

Large damage was done to crops and pastures. The volcano is known to erupt in a cycle of approximately 11 years. Two strong eruptions in 1972 and 1977 did significant damages as lava flows reached the ocean. In 1977, the coastal village of Singani was partly destroyed by lava flows. In 1860, a lava flow even reached the coast close to Moroni.

The entire Comoran archipelago - with the four major islands Grande Comore, Anjouan, Moheli and Mayotte (the latter a French colony) - is created through volcanism in geologically modern times. The volcanoes are a result of the island of Madagascar's drifting from the African continent and subsequent tensions in the stretching sea floor.

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