The Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo erupted Saturday night (May 22), filling the skies with orange-red smoke and sending thousands of people fleeing across the border into Rwanda.
While the lava flow has slowed, stopping just short of Goma, and entering Rwanda, a humanitarian crisis is still unfolding as many have lost lives, and some have been forced out of their homes as the quakes in the surrounding areas have raised fears of another eruption.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis reminds us that we need to be prepared for disaster partly because Rwanda is vulnerable to a wide range of natural hazards including floods, landslides, droughts, lightning, windstorms, earthquake and rainstorms.
Over the past decade, the frequency and intensity of natural hazard-induced disasters have significantly increased, raising the number human casualties as well as economic and environmental losses.
According to the Ministry in charge of Emergency Management, the country has experienced around 3,309 disasters in the 2011-2019 period. A number of disasters such as windstorms, lightning, floods, and landslides were also recorded in the first five months of 2020.
This means the government has to do more in assessing needs and capabilities to improve the local administrations' preparedness to deal with natural disasters.
Preparedness plans need to address not just the immediate response, but also the longer-term recovery to reduce human hardship and reconstruction as victims usually have to rebuild their lives from scratch.
Perhaps more importantly, a basic self-help programme for community groups in disaster-prone areas needs to be developed and made available nationwide.
While Rwanda quickly opened its borders to accommodate hundreds of people fleeing as the lava flowed, managing the unfolding humanitarian crisis as more people are getting displaced is likely to be complicated. For example, while the government announced that the arrivals would be accommodated in schools and places of worship that had been prepared for this purpose, it is not clear whether the facilities available can accommodate everybody who needs assistance.
And as the numbers of people forcibly displaced continues to rise, it is likely that local capabilities will be limited, meaning it will be challenge to ensure the continuity of the most essential activities in the affected areas.
Given that nobody knows when disaster is likely to strike, emphasis has to be placed on pre-disaster planning and practice so that when disaster strikes, we are not caught flat-footed. It is essential that government, business, and industry (particularly utility companies), and volunteer groups test the plans and procedures that will guide them.