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Lava destroyed homes on the outskirts of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

JUSTIN KATUMWA/AFP via Getty Images

European data monopoly hurt forecasts of deadly eruption, Congolese researchers charge

On 22 May, Mount Nyiragongo, perhaps the most dangerous volcano in the world, erupted in a show of fire. Lava swept toward the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), pushing thousands from their homes and killing dozens. Although the volcano has since settled down, a new flashpoint has erupted at the geophysical observatory that monitors it.

In a 2 June open letter addressed to the DRC’s president, staff at the Goma Volcano Observatory (GVO) have condemned what they say is corruption by the observatory’s Congolese leadership. They also accuse European partners of a “neocolonial” attitude and of depriving them of timely data that might have allowed them to provide early warnings of eruptions.

Signed by union leader Zirirane Bijandwa Innocent on behalf of the dozens of staff researchers and technicians, the letter alleges that GVO leaders squandered money from international donors, failed to pay staff for months, and even had some researchers arrested for complaining about the situation. It also charges that the Royal Museum for Central Africa (MRAC) in Belgium and the European Centre for Geodynamics and Seismology (ECGS) in Luxembourg, long-term partners with GVO, wield too much influence over its leadership. The letter says the observatory “was taken hostage … by a small group of scientific neo-colonialists” who shut out local experts and focused on their own volcanology research at the expense of developing local capacity to monitor geohazards.

In a statement to the DRC Parliament on 9 June, the science minister denied the charges of misappropriation and embezzlement, although in January GVO’s previous director-general was replaced after similar allegations. GVO’s scientific director declined to discuss the allegations, saying he needed “time to discuss with colleagues.” And in a statement to Science written on behalf of the European partners, ECGS Scientific Director Adrien Oth said they were “very surprised” by the charges of colonial science, “which we consider to be very unfair and unfounded.”

Difficulties at GVO came to a head in October 2020 when the World Bank decided not to renew financial support that had been in place since 2015. Without confirming allegations of corruption, the bank cited “weaknesses in implementing such a grant” in justifying its decision.

The cuts left the observatory unable to afford even an internet connection. That deprived GVO of real-time data from a network of seismometers and GPS stations deployed across the region by MRAC and ECGS since 2012. These devices can detect the small tremors and movements of Earth’s surface that can precede eruptions, as magma rises inside a volcano. The sensors send their data directly to ECGS before being returned to GVO.

Deadly flows

On 22 May, vents on Mount Nyiragongo’s flank spilled lava that destroyed thousands of homes.

0 7.5 km RWANDA DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO Vents Goma urban area Mount Nyiragongo Lake Kivu
EUROPEAN COMMISSION DIRECTORATE-GENERAL FOR EUROPEAN CIVIL PROTECTION AND HUMANITARIAN AID OPERATIONS, ADAPTED BY N. DESAI/SCIENCE

“We spent about 6 months without receiving the data,” says a GVO staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. In February, ECGS arranged a web repository for the data, although without an internet connection GVO could not access it. Instead, the GVO source says, the team in Goma would buy one-off mobile data packages to keep a stream of day-old readings coming in. In the end, GVO’s internet access was restored in April by the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), a U.S. relief program.

The complaint exposes the fragility of the relationship between observatory staff and their European partners—and the frustrations that result from the data bypassing GVO. A U.S. government volcanologist who works with VDAP but did not have permission to speak publicly, says VDAP’s policy, in contrast MRAC and ECGS, “is to donate equipment to the country, ensuring that the resulting data belongs only to that country.” GVO staff say they are sometimes treated as “field boys,” good for data collection, but no more, says Jonathan Esole, a DRC-born mathematician at Northeastern University who has visited GVO and advocates on behalf of its staff. The U.S. government volcanologist confirmed the impression, saying the Belgians appear to believe “that the GVO and DRC are their ‘turf.’”

In his statement, Oth strongly rejects these assertions, pointing to the collaboration’s long-term commitment to GVO. It has paid for three GVO staff members—including the current director-general—to do Ph.D. work in Belgium and for seven staffers to earn master’s degrees. Oth says the partners have also conducted several training sessions in Goma for staff members. As far as the data are concerned, Oth says it was fortunate that they passed through Europe first, because the arrangement preserved continuity despite the internet interruption at GVO.

Another dispute concerns whether the eruption could have been predicted. In presentations at GVO on 26 April and 10 May after they regained access to the data, staff seismologists highlighted tremor activity that might indicate magma rising through cracks, according to the letter and to Science’s source at the observatory. They urged GVO leadership to send teams out to make field observations, but nothing happened. The complainants allege that GVO leaders deferred to advice from their European partners.

In the statement, Oth denies that he or his colleagues knew anything of these discussions. ECGS’s automatic analysis did not flag anything concerning at the time, he says. An international group of seismologists convened after the eruption “confirmed the absence of obvious precursors,” Oth says. In any case, he adds, “Our contribution cannot and must not be considered as a substitution of the daily work of GVO’s seismology department.”

At the request of the DRC science minister, European scientists have arranged to go to Goma to meet with GVO leaders. In the statement, Oth says the minister confirmed his “full confidence” in the partners and “reiterated the  importance of this partnership.” As for the staff concerns, Oth says, “As is generally known, the GVO suffers from structural problems, but these are political problems of lack of resources and of adequate management to be resolved by Congolese authorities.”

Esole acknowledges the institution’s dysfunction and its need for better leadership. But he also reserves criticism for MRAC and ECGS and what he sees as their unequal relationship with GVO. They often refer to their work as “aid,” he says. “But who is helping who? Because there are no volcanoes in Belgium or Luxembourg. So to do their study, they need to go to another country. I believe GVO is helping them big time, and it is not a fair trade.” 

*Correction, 18 June, 11 a.m.: A earlier version of this story mistakenly implied that a known number of GVO staffers supported the union complaint and that ECGS processed data before sending it back to GVO. It also used imprecise wording to describe a dispute over whether the eruption could have been foreseen. 

doi:10.1126/science.abk0012

Responses

As a research consortium collaborating with the Goma Volcano Observatory for more than 15 years, we are dumbfounded by Roland Pease’s article, which promulgates unfounded allegations against us based on an open letter by a union representative at GVO. Although GVO doubtlessly suffers from a range of long-standing structural problems that need to be addressed by Congolese authorities, the discussion of these goes beyond the scope of this statement. Here, we clarify the main aspects that are misrepresented or misreported, and we are open for constructive discussion at any time.

  1. The GVO open letter is signed by one person only with no mention in this letter, nor elsewhere, of how many GVO staff support it or are represented by this union. Therefore, stating that this letter was signed “on behalf of the dozens of staff researchers and technicians” is purely conjecture and misleading. In contrast, the author knowingly omits the existence of a position statement signed nominatively by 31 researchers of GVO (dated 6 June) firmly rejecting the allegations of the open letter. The allegations are also rejected in a statement by GVO’s director general, dated 19 June. Both documents were provided to Science.
  1. GVO has access at all times to all seismological (and other) data in all possible ways technically feasible. The protocols chosen for ensuring data availability, including real-time transmission and on-site storage, the reasons for these choices and the data policy in relation to third parties have been made on a common agreement with GVO and transparently published in a peer-reviewed publication (Oth et al., 2017, doi: 10.1785/0220160147), co-authored by GVO personnel, including the head of the Seismology Department. We invite the readers to consult this publication and note that the statement of “data bypassing GVO” is simply false.
  1. In relation to the anonymous U.S. government volcanologist’s comparative statement on VDAP’s policy with respect to ours, we stress that VDAP, as explicitly mentioned in the article, is a “relief program,” whereas we are a research consortium providing scientific, educational and technical assistance to GVO in the framework of scientific collaborations. The ways in which VDAP can support GVO in its monitoring duties therefore naturally differ from ours. Since we are funded by research grants to do research, we cannot make formal donations to GVO as VDAP can, and neither can we simply accommodate payment of the lost internet connection on the acquisition server resulting from the structural deficits at GVO. Since the start of the network development in 2013, none of the very large number of instruments added over the years by our consortium for the seismic or geodetic networks has ever been removed, which unrefutably proves our commitment. VDAP’s and our efforts to assist GVO should therefore not be unfairly compared, but seen as complementary, reinforcing each other.
  1. A key aspect mispresented in the article is the “dispute […] whether the eruption could have been predicted.” The article relies solely on vague allegations in the GVO open letter, and knowingly ignores information from the official GVO bulletin N°008 published on 11 May. This document was provided to Science and mentions the observation of “sporadic volcano-tectonic earthquakes” in the “field of Nyiragongo” in the periods of 10-24 April and 2-6 May, “not affecting inhabited areas” and “meriting particular monitoring attention”. The alert level for Nyiragongo, which is set by GVO, was not changed (level yellow: vigilance), and no mention of the possibility of an impending eruption was made. We firmly believe that these observations made by GVO seismologists and the assessment of the prospective value of this “sporadic” activity belong in a scientific discussion rather than such a short news article. The formulation “tremor activity that might indicate magma rising through cracks” is not a valid description of the observations summarized in the official GVO bulletin, and the presentation of this “dispute” is highly misleading.
  1. The closing statements made by Northeastern University’s Jonathan Esole are baffling. Firstly, our consortium never referred to our work as “aid,” neither in oral nor written communications, and our role as research partners of GVO has always been clearly defined. Secondly, Prof. Esole apparently introduces a new paradigm in earth sciences: you need a volcano in your own country to be allowed to carry out volcanological research. This implies you need earthquakes in your country to be allowed to do seismological research, glaciers in your country to carry out glaciological research, etc. In our view, these statements show a fundamental misconception of the global nature of science in general and earth science in particular. We also stress that Prof. Esole never sought conversation with our consortium.

Scientific consortium of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, the European Center for Geodynamics and Seismology, and the Luxembourg National Museum of Natural History

In response to Dr Oth’s point 1): We view it as something of a truism that a union leader speaks on behalf of workers. Although it was not possible to confirm actual numbers, we were told the letter did have support, and discovered that another union complaint in 2020 on similar themes gathered 53 signatures. The “dozens” was meant merely as an indication of GVO’s overall size. As far as the “counter-letter,” we had concerns about how freely such a statement could be signed given the allegations of corruption, maladministration, and bullying. And in the counter-letter, the signatories say they were not consulted over the original complaint, but do not “firmly reject” the allegations. We do not believe that the rest of Dr. Oth’s complaints contradict the overall thrust of the article.
News editors, Science

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