Panic over suspected eruption of dormant volcano

By Antony Gitonga

To a visitor travelling along the Naivasha-Mai Mahiu Road, the yawning Mt Longonot is a stopper, nature’s gem to behold.

The zebras, antelopes and tens of livestock crossing the busy road break the monotony of the vast, bare land.

But the beauty is interrupted by ageing and wornout tents just after the sleepy Longonot trading centre. They dot each side of the road.

Men sit by the roadside, children play and women attend to their farms or household chores.

This was the norm up to about a month ago when heavy rains started pounding the country.

Now there are flooded sections of the road, stalled vehicles and destroyed crops washed away by the gushing waters. In fact, a visitor will not even notice the mountain.

second displacement

And for more than 3,000 internally displaced persons living between Mai Mahiu and Longonot trading centres, these last few weeks have been a nightmare. Displaced by the post election violence, the IDPs are worried of a second displacement due to the floods.

They are also worried about the real disaster the floods have presented to them.

In the last two weeks three people in the area have drowned after being swept by the waters and there are fears that the number could rise.

As if this is not enough, a rare incident has occurred in the area that has left many in fear and confusion. Huge gullies have erupted in the middle of six camps literally ‘swallowing’ a house, dam, trees, graves and farmland.

The gullies have been spreading at an alarming rate and as the rains continue to pound the area, the bigger and deeper they get. Residents are even more confused because they don’t know where the one kilometre dam’s water went to, as the dam is no more.

new phenomena

And just as the IDPs are grappling with the new phenomena, experts have announced that a major fault line has emerged in the area and it is collapsing the ground, threatening the lives of tens of families in the region.

The next option is for them to be evacuated from the area they have known as home for the last three years.

Experts, however, are not completely in agreement about the possibility that the volcano is about to erupt. While some say dormant Mt Longonot is about to erupt, others attribute the problem to the ongoing rains.

As they argue, the 5km fault line from Mt Longonot continues to spread to nearby Naivasha-Mai Mahiu road.

It all started two weeks ago when heavy rains in the area and the nearby hills left the area flooded and even swept away a bus carrying 40 mourners.

Pauline Wambui from Huruma camp says after the rains stopped there was a tremble that lasted for about ten seconds.

“We thought it was an earthquake. But everything suddenly went back to normal only to wake up the following day to find the dam, trees and sections of the farm gone,” says Wambui.

After the incident, the Government formed a taskforce led by Binsai Chepsongoi whose mandate is to study the case and report back in two weeks’ time.

The taskforce that has members drawn from various ministries has toured the affected areas and announced that a fault line had spread to Jikaze IDPs camp.

“We have established that there is a fault line under the Jikaze camp and we should relocate the IDPs residing in this area with immediate effect,” Chepsongoi told The Standard.

alarming rate

They are, however, yet to identify the cause of the fault which is spreading at an alarming rate adding that experts have been sent to the affected area. Chepsongoi is, however, quick to note that there is no need for alarm but has called on the IDPs to cooperate with the Government in the relocation programme.

But it not clear where they will be taken as all the land around the area is private property.

Naivasha DC Hellen Kiilu says a committee sent earlier to identify land in Naivasha had identified 250 acres in different parts of the area and they are in the process of evaluating it.

Christine Ndinda from Jikaze camp has vowed that she will not move. Ndinda, who has invested in poultry, says the government report has created more confusion and unnecessary tension in the area.

“I am not ready to go back in a tent during peaceful times and I am ready to be swallowed by the gullies,” says adamant Ndinda.

But Rose Wanjiku says she doesn’t know what to do in over the pending disaster. “Many of us have looked forward to the promised resettlement but government is using the gully issue to kick us out of this place,” says Wanjiku.

But if a volcanic eruption was to occur, the whole of Mai Mahiu, Naivasha town and the environs would be affected.
‘Looming disaster waiting to happen’

The area between Mai Mahiu and Longonot became the second home for people displaced from their homes after the 2007-2008 post-election violence.

They have enjoyed some stability in their new home, but now gullies are threatening their newfound peace.

Experts have come up with varying explanations about the cause of the fault line which could cave in anytime carrying with it tens of houses and lives.

A soil expert, James Ndung’u, notes that the rift could have been caused by heavy rains.

He dismisses those arguing that a volcanic eruption is in the offing adding that the current gullies have nothing to do with the nearby Mt Longonot.

“This issue has to do with soil formation and compactness in this area and the fear is that we are not sure which area will cave in next,” says Ndung’u.

about to erupt

But more worrying is a recent report by UK-based Financial Times which indicates that Mt Longonot was about to erupt.

The report admits that predicting a volcanic eruption is hard even in developed countries. It, however, adds that radar data from European Space Agency’s (Envisat) showed a nine-centimetre uplift over two years in the volcano, which was previously thought dormant. The mountain erupted more than 100  years ago.

Charles Gichaba, who teaches geology at the University of Nairobi, described the five-kilometre trench as a looming disaster waiting to happen.