Gas Explosion From Lake Nyos Kills 1800 People. 31 Years After. The Story Of The Abandoned People

Nyos scenic
Lake Nyos before the explosion

I was close to 11 years, but can vividly remember that fateful August 21st, 1986.  Mum had just delivered Immaculate on August 20th, and we were celebrating the arrival of a new born into the family, when the radio broadcasted the sad news. "There has been an explosion in the Lake Nyos of the Menchum Division in the North West Region of Cameroon, killing every living thing in and around the area".

Our joys turned sour, and there was panic everywhere. Neighbours streamed into our house to sympathise with us, since we are elites of Mekaf, from the Menchum Division, about 30-35kms away from Nyos disaster zone.

Verbal broadcasters with radio one battery had changed the story line saying the entire population of the Menchum Division is affected, and that there was no living soul existing in that Division.

Fear was all over the place, and even Cameroon Radio, the lone audio visual corporation at that time, kept increasing the death toll in their subsequent broadcasting of the disaster, reporting that gas was still escaping from the lake, insinuating eminent calamity.

I remember my dad was wailing to the top of his voice of how maybe his entire family had been wiped out, and my mum too was devastated.

It was a painful period for all Cameroonians and especially those from the Menchum Division, who did not now where and how to get the real information.
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There were no phones, newspapers were scarce, we had no television set, and the lone tv owner around us was a certain Mr. Robort, who was from Nyos, and who too lost his entire family in the disaster.

When we asked Mr. Robort of what CRTV has said concerning the disaster, he would tell us that the whole Menchum was affected with no living thing existing, which was true, because the explosion was felt 50 km from the disaster scene, and every living thing within 25 km was killed.
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My father was among the delegation sent by the Menchum people to go and verify what the real story was. 

Upon his return, he explained that our village Mekaf and other surrounding villages were safe, but that the impact was felt in our village and beyond, even though no life was lost.

He also said survivors could only explain the loud sound from the explosion they heard, with no real details of how it happened.

He explained  in his own way, and the story came out that:

On the morning of August 22, 1986, a man hopped onto his bicycle and began riding from Wum, the chief  town of the Menchum Division, Cameroon, towards the village of Nyos. On the way he noticed an antelope lying dead next to the road. "Why let it go to waste?" The man asked himself.

He picked up the antelope and tied onto his bicycle and continued on. A short distance later he noticed two dead rats, and further on, a dead dog and other dead animals. He wondered if they’d all been killed by a lightning strike, because  when lightning hits the ground it’s not unusual for animals nearby to be killed by the shock

Soon the man came upon a group of huts. He decided to see if anyone there knew what had happened to the animals. But as he walked up to the huts he was stunned to see dead bodies strewn everywhere. He didn't find a single person still alive—everyone in the huts was dead. 

The man threw down his bicycle and ran all the way back to Wum to announce the news.
Lake Nyos as it appeared eight days after the eruption

The Story in brief

Lake Nyos had long been quiet before it happened. Farmers and migratory herders in Cameroon knew the lake as large, still and blue.

But on the evening of Aug. 21, 1986, farmers living near the lake heard rumbling. At the same time, a frothy spray shot hundreds of feet out of the lake, and a white cloud collected over the water. From the ground, the cloud grew to 328 feet (100 meters) tall and flowed across the land. When farmers near the lake left their houses to investigate the noise, they lost consciousness.

The heavy cloud sunk into a valley, which channeled it into settlements. People in the affected areas collapsed in their tracks, at home, on then roads or in the field -- losing consciousness or dying in a few breaths. 

In Nyos an­d Kam, the first villages hit by the cloud, everyone but four inhabitants on high ground died.
Dead cattle surround compounds

The valley split, and the cloud followed, killing people up to 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) away from the lake. Over the next two days, people from surrounding areas entered the valley to find the bodies of humans and cows lying on the ground.

1800 people and countless thousands s of cattle herds died.

Grazing cattle killed 

By Aug. 23, the cloud had mostly blown away, and the silence had lifted. After being unconscious for up to 36 hours, some people revived to find, horrifically, that their family members, neighbors and livestock were dead.

The waters of Lake Nyos after the release of the gas

The lake had changed, too. It was now shallower; plants and leaves floated in it; and its formerly picturesque blue hue had darkened into rust.

Victims of the 1986 Lake Nyos gas release receive medical treatment

Survivors of this disaster were evacuated to nearby hospitals and resettlement camps. 

What Caused this?

The exact cause of the gas release at Lake Nyos is still unresolved. One theory is that a small confined area of the lake released gas allowing for the stratification in Lake Nyos to remain (Kanari, 1989). 

Another theory describes a slow influx of heat into the system causing instability (Kling, 1989). A landslide within the lake is another possible explanation for the displacement of the bottom CO2 saturated layers in Lake Nyos. 
Lake Nyos appropriately red from having blood on its hands just after the August 1986 disaster

Evidence of water surges on the southern shore of the lake suggest a possible seiche motion of the lake waters (Kanari, 1989). In all situations, the possibility of a volcanic injection is ruled out. 

High concentrations of reduced iron were found in Lake Nyos, the presence of which cannot be explained by the possibility of a volcanic injection into the lake (Kling, 1989). In general, a gradual heating from below the lake is widely accepted as the cause for rollover and or gas release

Degassing Lake Nyos - Hazard Prevention

The scale of the disaster led to much study on how a recurrence could be prevented. Estimates of the rate of carbon dioxide entering the lake suggested that outgassings could occur every 10–30 years, though a recent study shows that release of water from the lake caused by erosion of the natural barrier that keeps in the lake's water, could in turn reduce pressure on the lake's carbon dioxide and cause a gas escape much sooner.
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Degassing Lake Nyos

Several researchers independently proposed the installation of degassing columns from rafts in the lake. The principle is simple: a pump lifts water from the bottom of the lake, heavily saturated with CO2, until the loss of pressure begins releasing the gas from the diphasic fluid and thus makes the process self-powered.

scientists in boat

Scientists in Lake Nyos

In 1992 at Monoun, and in 1995 at Nyos, a French team directed by Michel Halbwachs demonstrated the feasibility of this approach. In 2001, the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance funded a permanent installation at Nyos.

In 2011, two additional pipes were installed by Michel Halbwachs and his French-Cameroonian team to assure the complete degassing of Lake Nyos.

Thirty One Years After

Three decades have past, since this incident took place, and survivors have struggled with the help of the government, NGOs and individuals, to overcome the shock and forge ahead all over the world. 

On Thursday January 7 2016,  Absalom Monono Wolua, Secretary General at the North West Governor’s office disclosed that of the 32,051,873,000 FCFA (Thirty Two Billion Fifty One Million Eight Hundred and Seventy Three Thousand Francs) budgeted as 2016 Public Investment Budget, PIB, for the region, 200 million FCFA(Two Hundred Million Francs)  will be allocated to the Lake Nyos area in Menchum Division
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Absalom said 100 million FCFA(One Hundred Million) will be used to resettle 1986 victims, while the rest of the money will be used for containing the persistent risk that abounds in the area.

On February 3, 2016, the Japanese Ambassador to Cameroon, His Excellency Kunio Okamura, met with the Governor of the North West Region, Adolphe Lele Lafrique, during which they discussed cooperation between the two countries. The Ambassador was on his way to Lake Nyos area in Boyo and Menchum Divisions to visit a Japanese-funded lake degasing project

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Kunio Okamura said the Japanese government has been funding and taking part in the monitoring of volcanic activities in the lake since the 1986 gas disaster to avoid any future occurrence. He said it was his first visit to the region since taking up duties last year. The diplomat added that it was also his first time of meeting with Governor Lele Lafrique.

He said survivors and descendants of the August 21, 1986 Lake Nyos Gas Disaster needed roads and social amenities like water and classrooms. The Governor said government has taken steps to provide some of the needs, but much was still lacking. 
Lele Lafrique solicited the support of foreign partners like Japan in order to improve the living conditions of the people, noting that a security perimeter around the lake has been earmarked. This he explained, will with time enable people displaced by the disaster to return to areas.

We pray all these promises come to fulfillment so that life can once return to Nyos, so that tomorrow's tale about Nyos will be told heroically.

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are for general information purposes only. They do not constitute our legal or professional advice. Readers are advised not to act on the basis of the information contained herein alone. Every situation depends on its own facts and circumstances. We accept no responsibility for any loss or damage of whatsoever nature which may arise from reliance on any of the information published herein without consulting a professional legal practitioner.

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