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Goma Aid Distribution Begins - 2002-01-22

Aid agencies are distributing emergency supplies to people in the Congolese town of Goma, five days after a volcano erupted and sent rivers of lava through the town. The distribution began shortly after experts said Africa's biggest volcanic eruption in 25 years appeared to be over. Goma residents are also enjoying their first clean water in days.

Relief officials say the situation in Goma has greatly improved. Electricity has been restored to much of the town and one of its water treatment plants is now operating.

Before the plant re-opened, people had been drinking untreated water directly from Lake Kivu, even though it had been contaminated by lava. Aid agencies warned of the risk of cholera, but Goma residents had no other choice.

Health officials had also expressed concern that the lava may have introduced chemicals into the lake water that the filtration plant could not handle, but that fear has eased.

John Jacques Simon, head of communication for the International Committee of the Red Cross says tests show that the treated water is safe.

"We were a bit afraid of the quality of water from Lake Kivu, the only source of water in the city," he said. "So we sent some samples to different laboratories, one of them in Kigali, and the results came this morning. So with the Regedero, the department of water here, the ICRC opened the valve and now part of the city has clean water finally."

The U.N. World Food Program has also started distributing food. Laura Melo, spokeswoman for WFP, says food is being given to 60,000 displaced people in Sake, 20 kilometers west of Goma.

But hundreds of thousands of hungry Goma residents will have to wait another day before they receive emergency rations, even though there is a warehouse full of food in the city.

Ms. Melo says the WFP needs to plan the food distribution properly to prevent a riot.

"It is just a matter of getting ready on the ground," she said. "As you can imagine distributing food is not just opening a warehouse and start giving it away. We have to identify who are the heads of families. We have to organize the population, otherwise we could create, even, riots."

Aid agencies describe the relief operation as a logistical nightmare. Goma airport has been submerged in lava and the lava flow has also cut off the main road between Rwanda and Goma.

Aid agencies hope to be able to use the road in a few days, when there is a thick enough crust of cool lava to support heavy supply trucks. Meanwhile, they are using boats to ferry supplies across Lake Kivu from Rwanda to Goma.