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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

18 January 2002

At Headquarters this afternoon, a top United Nations emergency relief official briefed reporters on the "desperate" situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- a country already extremely vulnerable following years of protracted conflict and perennial water shortages -- where today hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing Goma and the eastern part of the country in the aftermath of the eruption of the Nyaigongo volcano.

Steven Johnson, Acting Chief of the Humanitarian Emergency Branch of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said a day after the initial cataclysm, there was an urgent need to get assessment teams on the ground quickly to survey the damage caused by what turned out to be two volcanic eruptions which generated three or four separate lava flows. Reconnaissance reported that one of the blistering flows had virtually split the town of Goma in half, leaving one side completely destroyed. Some 100,000 people were reported fleeing deeper into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and nearly 300,000 more were seeking safe haven just across the border in Rwanda. There was no indication that the volcano would not erupt again.

Mr. Johnson said that at the moment, there was only one inter-agency assessment mission and one non-governmental organization (NGO) on the ground. His Office was eager for more information, particularly since the large amounts of smoke and ash made aerial surveillance out of the question. To that end, the OCHA Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator in Geneva had deployed a five-member United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDACT), scheduled to arrive at the scene of the disaster tomorrow. A team of four volcanologists with information on the special characteristics of Nyaigongo was set to arrive on Sunday.

The Office had estimated that initially about $500,000 was required for needs assessment and coordination purposes, Mr. Johnson said, of which some $90,000 had already been pledged using OCHA grants from Norway and the Netherlands. Relevant agencies in the United States and among the associated countries of the European Union also expected to participate in the assessment. Other international donors had also expressed interest in contributing.

Mr. Johnson said that approaching this type of natural disaster in the Democratic of the Congo's already fragile environment made it mandatory that some specific needs be met right away, including materials for shelter, water and sanitation facilities, as well as items for basic survival like blankets and food. The World Food Programme (WFP) would immediately provide food, while other inter-governmental agencies explored longer-term options. The two United Nations offices leading the response on the ground -- in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) and in Rwanda -- were currently coordinating efforts to identify what assets were available and could be deployed immediately.

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