Monday, August 29, 2011

Ghost Winds of Kivu

One late evening, on a chilly night of April 2009, Dieudonne Masha and his friend Innocent Rwagatore staggers home along the shores of Lake Kivu, after a round of drinks in one of Goma’s beer dens. Suddenly two soldiers on patrol confront them, demanding to see their identification cards.

While Rwagatore is still fumbling with his tattered wallet looking for his ID, his friend Masha realises he hasn’t carried his; to save his skin from the military men he escapes to the nearest bushes. However this proves more suicidal. The following morning, his body was found lying in the same rocky ditch that he had sought refuge.
Mr. Masha is believed to have died from suffocation after entering into an invisible carbon dioxide bubble locally known as mazuku, or “evil wind”.

Split between perennial DR Congo and Rwanda in this seismically active region, the waters of Lake Kivu looks as serene and calm as those of any other inland water mass.
But, according to scientists, there lurks a ticking time bomb deep below the surface of these waters in the form of hazardous gases. Over 250 billion cubic meters of carbon dioxide and 55 billion cubic meters of dissolved methane is trapped in the depths of this volcanic lake.

“If the gas concentrations continue to increase or a severe disruption occurs large bubbles of gas could rise to the surface triggering a chain reaction that could lead to a massive gas eruption,” warns Prof Alfred Wüest, a scientist attached to Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology.

Such a gaseous explosion could have catastrophic consequences for the huge population living along the shores of Lake Kivu in towns like Goma, Bukavu and Gisenyi. Although lava erupting from the nearby Mount Nyiragongo flowed into the lake in 2002, it didn’t go deep enough to set off what scientists call a ‘limnic’ eruption, but next time it could.

A disaster of this nature occurred in Cameroon in 1986, after huge amounts of carbon dioxide fumes emitted by Lake Nyos suffocated more than 1800 people in the surrounding villages.

“The lake was essentially like a bottle of beer that has been shaken up,” said Prof George Kling of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Michigan University. “When you opened it, carbon dioxide bubbled up, and the beer frothed over. A glassful is OK. A lakeful is deadly.”

Lake Kivu is 3,000 times the size of Nyos and contains more than 350 times as much gas.To avert the imminent disaster and meet the current power shortages in the region, Rwandan and DR Congo governments have embarked on an ambitious project designed to alleviate the potential disaster as well as exploit the gas reserves for electricity generation.

This will help the two countries exploit the full potential of the deposits which stands at 55 billion litres valued at around $14.3 billion.
The two countries signed a deal last year that is expected to produce 200 megawatts of electricity that will be split equally between the two countries. According to the Rwandese Minister for Energy Dr Albert Butare, the grand energy project is expected to harvest over 250 million cubic meters of methane per year.

“We discussed with Rwanda’s minister and have agreed to produce 200 megawatts together. 100 megawatts will go to Congo, and 100 megawatts will go to Rwanda,” Eugene Serufili, head of Congo’s national electricity company, SNEL, said.
This historic power deal is also being promoted as a centerpiece for the shaky peace deal between the two former enemies.

Apart from the joint venture, Rwanda has also signed a number of agreements with both local and foreign investors to extract the gas. After carrying out several pilot projects through Rwanda Investment Group (RIG), the country entered into agreement with the New York-based group CounterGlobal in 2007 to develop the lake’s gas project.
When complete the project, reported to be worth $325 million, will input an additional 100MW of electricity to the Rwandan national grid.

Christened Project KivuWatt, ContourGlobal is already constructing a platform-based gas extraction system that will be moored off the Rwandan coast. The gas will be processed and transported by pipeline to the firm’s power plant being developed in Kibuye, Rwanda.

“ContourGlobal has been designing and developing the project for two years and has conducted extensive seabed surveys and methane gas sampling in the lower depths of the Lake,” explains Joseph Brandt, president and chief executive officer of ContourGlobal.

Besides these mega projects there are other smaller pilot projects all of which are expected to boost the Rwandan national grid and bring down the cost of electricity per kilowatt, which are currently the highest in the region due to inadequate supply. Only five percent of the central African country’s population has access to electricity.
But even as the two governments prepares to utilize this epic but potentially lethal energy source the ordinary people living around the lake continue to pay the price.
According to Dr. Dario Tedesco, a volcano expert currently designing United Nations contingency plans for Mount Nyiragongo’s next eruption, nearly 100 people die each year from the carbon dioxide vents along Lake Kivu’s northern shores.

“Stories of people feeling breathless and lightheaded while swimming in the lake are common, which could contribute to the many drownings there,” explains Dr. Tedesco.
In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, many are said to have died after clouds of mazukus descended on packed refugee camps along the lake. Skull signs warning of the mazuku danger are spread all around the area and children are told to stay away from the lake.

But apart from the dreaded mazuku there are many other dangers lurking around the waters of Lake Kivu.

Piracy, deadly volcanic eruptions, armed rebellions and lightning strikes which according to the National geographic Society are more likely to strike here than anywhere else in the world, are some of the perils that locals around this area have to contend with.

Mysterious deaths and incidences inexplicable through the native cultures have led to superstitious tendencies among some local residents.

“During the dry season, the lake likes to kill people,” says Marie Bazimuka whose 11 year-old son Abu Bakar disappeared while fetching water from the lake with a friend. “It’s a kind of a demon, a devil.”

Most of these tragedies usually occur in dry months of June to August when the rains, and the town’s water supplies, stops pushing residents to the lake’s rocky beaches with their empty jerry cans and buckets.

“The best protection the government could give us is to provide water,” says Edward Wilondje whose 17 year-old son Fitso drowned while fetching water in August 2006.

(Published at


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