Humanitarian crisis in Eritrea? The volcano no-one expected.

You would certainly be forgiven for not realising that in the last week there has been a large volcanic eruption going on in North East Africa – its presence in the mainstream news sites has been minimal (if covered at all).  That’s not to say the eruption is of little impact. The video below shows the movement of the intial ash plume as viewed by the Eumetsat weather satellite.

ESA/NASA image of Nabro Volcano, taken in January 2011 by Paulo Nespoli on board the International Space Station

Just after midnight on the 13th June , and following a series of moderately big earthquakes (up to magnitude 5.7), reports started coming in of an eruption in Eritrea.  the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) initially attributed the eruption to Dubbi volcano, which lies about 25km North East of Nabro.  There’s very good reason for this; largely the fact that  as well as confirmed eruptions in 1400 and 1861, they suspect there were two more between 1861 and 1900, making it a relatively active volcano.  Nabro, on the other hand has no historically recorded eruptions  at all. The appearance of a 14km high plume over it came as a little bit of a shock to pretty much everyone.

Part of the problem in all this is that Eritrea is not the easiest place to get information out of.  In fact the 2010 Press Freedom report by Reporters Without Borders places the Eritrean media environment at 178/178.  Quite how you manage to beat Kim Jong Il at his own game I have no idea.

The other problem is that vast swathes of Eritrea have very low population densities, so there’s little communications infrastructure, and even if there were, there’s not a whole lot of people around to see what’s going on in the first place.

The Eritrean government released their first press statement on June 13th, basically saying that ash was covering a massive area, and claiming there had been “no damage so far to human life”.  A bold claim when you consider the communication problems outlined above, and even more so when you realise that an ash cloud covering hundreds of square kilometers is going to have very significant implications on any populations under or near it – agricultural land and transport routes may be rendered useless, while the health risk of volcanic ash is tremendous.

On June 16th the Eritrean government are again proclaiming no casualties, and are very pleased with themselves as everyone is thanking their government for their help.

By the 21st the government report 7 deaths and 3 injuries.

On the 22nd the government go into more detail about the size and extent of the lava emissions (1000m wide flow which destroyed vegetation for 20km – no mention if that’s area or distance).  some more mention of evacuations.  It also included this gem:

“The regional Administration disclosed that the Government is working diligently in moving the nationals to safe place in view of the fact that new landscape is being formed due to the eruption resulting in the  melting of rock”

Aside from that the Eritrean Ministry of Information has mostly been concerned about publicising the Eritrea Festival.  And that may well have been where it ended, aside from some excellent technical coverage by the likes of Big Think, The Volcanism Blog, and Highly Allochthanous, and some lovely images from the NASA Earth Observatory site.  I certainly wasn’t paying any great heed to what was going on there.  However, an opposition group exiled from eritrea today released a request for urgent humanitarian aid to go into the country.

Included within this is a particularly bold claim made by the organisation;

“The Eritrean government had the knowledge in advance on the occurrence of the volcanic eruption and evacuated hundreds of its soldiers from the area one day ahead of the eruption however [they did not give] advanced notice to the inhabitants nor did [the government] evacuate them to safety”

Certainly we can predict volcanic activity to a greater or (mostly) lesser extent, but I think the best of us would struggle to predict the behaviour of a volcano which has (to my knowledge) zero monitoring, and no known recent eruption history.  With the swarms of earthquakes the previous day I think we have to take that particular bit of the claim with a pinch of salt.

Unfortunately, the rest of the claim may well stand up.  At least 5000 people in neighboring Ethiopia have been affected by the ash cloud, and UN staff are not being allowed out of the Eritrean Capital to observe what’s going on.  Without more information from inside the country, it may be a long time before we really find out what the situation is for the 5 million people who live in one of the most closed countries in the world.


About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
This entry was posted in General, Geology, Media & Perception, Science, Volcanism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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