Every year an average of 50 volcanoes erupt worldwide, putting lives, economic productivity, and homes in danger. USAID is responding to that risk with the world’s only volcano crisis response team.
In the wake of the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia that killed over 23,000 people, USAID established the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
VDAP scientific teams travel to volcanic areas throughout the world, using mobile volcano-monitoring equipment to assess hazards and generate eruption forecasts that allow local authorities to evacuate high-risk areas before a disaster occurs.
In June 2009, the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) asked VDAP to help monitor the Harra Lunayyir volcanic area in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Since early 2007, the region has experienced increasing seismic activity, including swarms of micro-earthquakes, prompting fears of a possible major eruption and the evacuation of approximately 40,000 people.
A two-person VDAP team provided satellite radar data, and helped with eruption forecasting and seismic risk assessment. The scientists concluded that major eruptions or earthquakes are unlikely to happen soon, but that the risks could increase suddenly, requiring swift evacuations.
The team also helped establish a permanent monitoring and warning system that will allow the SGS to assess the volcano in real time, 24 hours a day. In the event of seismic unrest or an eruption, the SGS will immediately issue warnings to emergency managers and the public.
Every volcano is different, so VDAP teams have to adapt their evaluations to suit the situation.
In Tanzania, Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano reawakened after 40 years of low-level activity, erupting explosively several times between September 2007 and April 2008. The explosions and accompanying ash forced evacuations and contaminated nearby water supplies and grasslands that nomadic herders depend on to feed their cattle.
Two VDAP scientists and Gari Mayberry, the geoscience advisor for USAID and USGS, traveled to Ol Doinyo Lengai at the request of the Tanzanian government in January to evaluate the risks and make recommendations. The project was particularly challenging as the volcano lacked monitoring equipment.
"We usually do not deal with volcanoes that have no monitoring equipment, so this forced us to look at the situation in a new way," said Mayberry. "We determined that disaster risk reduction education may be the most feasible way to reduce the hazard around Ol Doinyo Lengai in the short term."
The VDAP team recommended teaching local villagers techniques to protect themselves and their animals from an eruption, and creating an emergency evacuation plan.
"As growing human populations push ever closer to volcanic zones, VDAP’s work to protect lives and livelihoods will become more important," said Mayberry. "The field teams’ assessments and capacity-building work with local counterparts will continue to help prevent future eruptions from becoming disasters."
Since 1986, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance has provided $16.7 million to VDAP.