Volcano icon

The Strange Lake Nyos CO2 Gas Disaster:
Impacts and The Displacement and Return of Affected Communities

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2011-1

The Strange Lake Nyos CO2 Gas Disaster:
Impacts and The Displacement and Return of Affected Communities

Forka Leypey Mathew Fomine, History Department, The University of Yaounde 1, Cameroon . Email:  fleypeymathew@yahoo.fr
Keywords: Lake Nyos, Cameroon, carbon dioxide gas, asphyxiation, resettlement, disaster

Forka Leypey Mathew Fomine

History Department,
The University of Yaounde 1,


At about 9 p. m. on Thursday 21 August 1986 in Cameroon an enormous volume of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas was released from Lake Nyos, a volcanic crater lake in Cameroon. The gas flowed down towards nearby settlements and killed approximately 1,800 people, 3000 cattle, and countless wild animals, birds and insects – in short almost every living creature for miles around. The official human death toll was only an estimate, the reason being that before competent authorities who collected statistics on the mortality rate could reach the disaster area, some survivors had already begun to bury victims in mass graves, and many terrified survivors had even fled corpse-filled villages and hid themselves in the forest. The impact of this event resulted in the massive involuntary resettlement of people from nearby settlements.

The villages that were most affected by the disaster included Cha, Subum and Nyos, situated in Fungom periphery in the North West Region (previously North West Province) of Cameroon. It took two days for a medical team to arrive the lake site after local officials had called the Governor of the Northwest Region to report the strange occurrence. When the doctors and other medical personnel arrived at the lake, they found an unthinkable catastrophe and a fatal disaster far greater than they could have imagined. This article sets out to decipher and unravel the origins of the disaster, its far-reaching effects and how it led to forced human migration and massive involuntary resettlement in the region.

The Strange Lake Nyos CO2 Gas Disaster:
Impacts and The Displacement and Return of Affected Communities


Geographical location of Lake Nyos

Nyos is a small village found in Fungom Sub-division, Menchum Division, North West Region, Cameroon, Central Africa. Lake Nyos is located 6°26’ N of the equator and 10° 18’east of the Greenwich Meridian (Tchuente, 1987). The lake is found on a steep hill of 1,214 m high, adjacent to the Nigeria, border. Lake Nyos lies within the Oku Volcanic Field, at the northern boundary of the Cameroon Volcanic Line, a zone of crustal weakness and volcanism that extends to the southwest via the Mount Cameroon Stratovolcano. The Oku Volcanic Field contains numerous basaltic scoria cones and maars. Lake Nyos itself occupies a maar crater which was formed from a hydro volcanic eruption 400 years ago. The lake covers an area of about 1.5 km2 and is over 200m deep. In the rainy season, the excess lake water escapes over a low spillway cut into the northern rim of the maar crater, and down a valley through Nyos village (Lockwood, 1986).

Formation and geological history of Lake Nyos

The maar occupied by Lake Nyos is roughly circular in shape and formed some 400 years ago by the explosive interaction of lava and ground water. The area has been volcanically active for millions of years. During the dry season, the water in Lake Nyos is held in place by a natural dam composed of volcanic rock. The lake is one of only three in the world known to be saturated with carbon dioxide – the others are Lake Monoun, also in Cameroon about 100km away, and Lake Kivu in Rwanda, East Africa. A magma chamber beneath the lake is an abundant source of carbon dioxide, which sweeps up through the lake bed, charging the waters of Lake Nyos with an estimated 90 million tonnes of CO2. The lake is compositionally stratified, with fresh water occupying the upper 50m and heavier sodium and carbon dioxide rich water below that. The sodium and carbon dioxide rich water below 180 comes from numerous sodium-bicarbonate bearing springs – derived from an underlying magma chamber – feeding into the bottom of the lake.

Description of Disaster

Origins of Lake Nyos gas disaster

On August 21, 1986, an unprecedented eruption occurred at Lake Nyos, which triggered the sudden release of about 1.6 million of tonnes of CO2. The gas spilled over the Northern lip of the lake into a valley running roughly east-west from Cha to Subum, and then rushed down two valleys branching to the north, displacing all the air causing the death of ca. 1,800 people and a huge number of livestock in mostly rural villagers within several kilometres of the lake. About 15,000 inhabitants fled the area, as many of them developed respiratory problems, lesions and paralysis as a result of gases they inhaled.

There has been a lot of controversy not only among the residents of Nyos and its environs but also among scientists as to the origin of the Lake Nyos gas disaster that killed thousands of people and cattle, and also caused the displacement of people from their homes to different sites (Soter, 1987). The residents of Nyos attributed the disaster to the annoyance of their most prominent chief popularly known as the Lake Chief, who died in 1983 (Interview with Ngong). According to them, the strangest disaster occurred because the will of the departed chief was not respected. Before death, the chief had designated his most conspicuous cow to be given to the Kwifon Secret Society for ritual purposes. When the chief passed away, his kinsmen argued strongly among themselves and came to the conclusion that the cow was too big for the ritual sacrifice and so decided to substitute it with a slim one. One week later, all the late chief’s cows were seen moving in a queue into Lake Nyos (Ngangwa, 2006). When the fatal disaster occurred, the residents of Nyos believed it was due to the wrath of their departed chief.

Some critics hold the view that the Lake Nyos gas disaster was not natural. According to them, the disaster was caused by a bomb that was tested by the Israeli Government in collaboration with the Government of Cameroon. The evidence put forward by these critics is that a few hours after the lake Nyos gas disaster occurred, the Israeli forces were already at the disaster site, even before information could reach authorities in Wum, the then capital of Menchum Division.

As local residents’ versions concerning the origins of the Lake Nyos gas disaster were varied, so too were scientists’ versions. Seven months after the disaster, President Paul Biya of Cameroon summoned an international conference that brought together scientists from different academic disciplines to unravel the causes of the unprecedented calamity. One hundred scientists and other experts from different countries sat in the conference hall in Yaounde from 16 to 20 March 1987 in an acrimonious debate to reveal the results of their findings. At the end of the conference, the experts were neatly divided into two camps (volcanologists and limnologists). Scientists from the United States of America, Cameroon, Israel, Britain, Switzerland and Japan ascribed to the limnological theory. According to this theory, carbonic gas of magmatic origin had been slowly accumulating in the lake long before it was released by the interaction of a yet unspecific trigger event. According to them, there was no direct volcanic explosion ( Cameroon, 1987). The volcanologists explained an observed phenomenon which pointed to a phreatic eruption, which did not involve fresh magma, but only superheated water flashing to steam. According to them, the phreatic explosion occurred on the bed of the lake (Smith, 2007). Another explanation by Smith suggested that cool rainwater falling on one side of the lake triggered the overturn of the CO2 layer.

The pathologists who studied the fatalities of the Nyos tragedy were convinced that the victims died of asphyxiation, secondary to exposure to the carbon dioxide gas cloud. The entire medical evidence collected by national and foreign physicians indicated that carbon dioxide was the lethal toxic agent. Whatever the cause, the event resulted from the rapid mixing of the CO2 supersaturated deep water with the upper layers of the lake, where the reduced pressure allowed the stored CO2 to effervesce out of solution.

The strangest disaster

On Thursday, 21 August 1986, after it had rained very hard, an unprecedented event occurred in Nyos - the lake Nyos gas disaster. By 9:30 p.m, the heavy down pour ceased and the weather became conducive for normal evening activities. This tranquil atmosphere was suddenly disturbed by a series of rumbling sounds which are said to have lasted just for a few minutes. Many people on hearing this sound came out and smelled a smell akin to gun powder and rotten eggs. Some immediately felt hot and lost consciousness without any preliminary symptoms. Those who could not resist the inhaled gas perished instantly. Many survivors of this fatal incident woke up 6-16 hours later.

Certain factors allowed survivals in villages where massive death was recorded. First, as soon as the fatal incident occurred, an old man immediately drank some palm oil and shouted at the top of his voice that the other village dwellers should do the same. Some of those who took his advice seriously and drank the palm oil survived but others still died. Second, the lake is situated on a plain. Before the toxic gas could reach the village dwellers who resided on hill tops, its concentration had reduced so some of the hill top dwellers who inhaled the gas survived. Third, the direction of the wind at the time of the release of the gas was also a decisive factor in causing death. Almost all the village dwellers who resided on the direction of the wind during the gas release died while some of those who resided on the opposite direction survived.

The government administrators in Wum received verbal news about the disaster from Emmanuel Ngu Mbi (chief of Sebum Health Centre) who slept in Wum on the day of the disaster. On the morning of August 22, 1986, he hopped onto his bicycle and began riding from Wum towards Nyos. When he reached Cha, he smelled something strange, felt dizzy and fell unconscious. He slept there and woke up at 8.35a.m and continued his journey. On the way he noticed an antelope lying dead next to the road. Why let it go to waste? He posed himself this rhetorical question. He decided to tie the antelope 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 all the animals had been killed by lightning strike – when lightning hits the ground, it is not unusual for animals nearby to be killed by the shock. Soon he came upon a group of huts at Nyos. He decided to see if anyone there knew what had happened to the animals. But surprisingly, as he walked up to the huts he was stunned to see dead bodies strewn everywhere. He did not find even a single person still alive – everyone in the huts was dead. He immediately threw down his bicycle and ran all the way back to Wum to report the calamity (Interview with Wango).

Mbi finally got to Wum at 10:40 a.m and reported the event immediately to his boss, Anthony Wango Wabua, Assistant Chief of Preventive Medicine, who then alerted the medical doctor, the Senior Divisional Officer of Menchum Region and finally the public security. The public security officers then sent a message to the Governor of the North West Region who in turn informed the presidency of the Republic of Cameroon. Within a few hours, the news spread like a wild fire throughout Cameroon and the world. Scientists and non-scientists commenced their search for the cause of the disaster in a manner comparable to the approach adopted by police officers to investigate crimes.

Effects of the Disaster

While the direct effects of the Lake Nyos gas disaster were local to regional in scope, the indirect effects were far-reaching. The death rate resulting from the disaster was at a level that attracted both national and international interest. This level of loss from a natural hazard was unprecedented in the history of Cameroon. In cultural terms, the massive displacement of people from their regions of origin to new villages, the loss of thousands of cattle and other domestic animals, the abandonment of important buildings, and the death of over 1,800 Cameroonians cannot easily be evaluated in monetary terms.

The demographic impact of the disaster was substantial. The disaster almost ravaged entirely the population of Cha, Subum and Nyos people. Eye witnesses of the event narrated that immediately after the tragic event occurred, there were corpses on all the roads in the three villages most affected by the gas hazard. Some of the victims died in deep sleep while others died during conversation. A significant proportion of the victims died while attempting to escape. Written evidence suggests that Nyos village had the highest number of deaths because it was the nearest village to the lake. The population of the affected villages dwindled susbstantially. Besides humans, livestock (especially cattle and fowl) also suffered from the adverse effects of the toxic gas released from the lake Nyos. Besides domestic animals, the lethal gas also killed wild birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects indiscriminately. Credible written evidence indicates that 3,909 cows died during the disaster while 3,324 fowl also died (Fotabong & Fossung, 1986). After the disaster, the jangili tax which Wum Rural Council often collected from cattle raisers in Cha, Subum and Nyos declined by 7,000,000 France Financiére Communauté Africaine (FCFA) annually (Kanno, 2003). Transit fees collected from cattle raisers by the council were also lost. The lethal gas did not spare the lives of goats and sheep. A total of 364 sheep and 561 goats ceased breathing due to the inhalation of the toxic gas.

The area (in hectares) of land abandoned due to the lake Nyos gas disaster was considerable. A total of 1,642 hectares of land were abandoned in the affected villages. This abandoned land had profound economic implications on the lives of the survivors of the disaster and that of the entire Region. Cultivated land was significantly reduced in the sub division where the disaster occurred. Food crops such as maize, cassava, yams, groundnuts and soya beans that were already growing on the land were forsaken and the land abandoned. This led to severe starvation in the area and a huge drop in the revenue of the council of Menchum Division.

Again, the population of Menchum Region witnessed a tremendous rise in the prices of cattle. A cow which prior to the disaster was sold at 170, 000F CFA rose to about 280 000F CFA after the disaster. This sudden rise in the price of cows emanated primarily from the disaster. The events at Lake Nyos live on in the minds of Cameroonians in general and the residents of Menchum Region in particular.

Disaster Management

Local attempts at managing the disaster

The Lake Nyos gas disaster created severe terror in Cameroon. The terror stemmed from the fear that the disaster may reoccur in future. On 23 August 1986 a radio broadcast from the presidency of the Republic of Cameroon informed the nation of the death of forty people following the gas explosion. This was probably as a result of lack of adequate statistics and the governments fear that if the real figure was announced it could cause ethnic tension in Cameroon. The government’s duty then was to provide shelter, food and treatment to the survivors who continued to move out of the lake’s vicinity in huge numbers. Survivors were carried to Wum and Nkambe hospitals where medical doctors and other social workers attended to them devotedly.

The neighbouring population feared to venture into the disaster zone due to concerns over the imminent danger posed by the toxic gas. However, when convinced that the affected zone was safe, they began the massive task of burying carcasses and evacuating and hospitalising victims, especially those who sustained injuries and burns during the tragedy. This period also involved putting in place structures for the temporary resettlements of the survivors in risk-free zones.

The Cameroon military also played a significant role in managing the Lake Nyos gas disaster. Of the estimated 15,000 people that were displaced, the military evacuated more than two thirds of the victims and transported survivors to Nkambe, Wum and Njinikom hospitals. The prominent illnesses suffered by the survivors included severe headache, asphyxiation, burns, pulmonary infections, nervous problems and post traumatic stress. Approximately 20,000 people were affected in different ways.

On 23 August 1986, the President of the Republic of Cameroon, His Excellency Paul Biya dispatched a rescue team to the disaster zone. Those who constituted the team were namely, kaptue Lazare, the then director of health in the Ministry of Public Health, and five other medical doctors. A mobile military unit from the Cameroon Ministry of Defence headed by Commander Dr. Nengue is also said to have been dispatched. These personnel worked day in day out to rescue and assist the survivors.

Among the several committees constituted in Cameroon to rescue the survivors, the North West Provincial Committee played a prominent role. The North West Provincial Committee for the Reception and Management of Aids for the Lake Nyos Disaster Victims was headed by the Governor of the North West Province. Its members included: the Senior Divisional Officer for Menchum, Mezam and Donga Mantung Divisions; Commander of the third military Region; Provincial Controller of Finance; Technical Adviser of Social and Cultural Affaires in the Governor’s office; Provincial Delegate of Health; Provincial Delegate of Mines and Energy; Provincial Chief of Public Security and Subsection Presidents of Cameroon Peoples Democratic Party (CPDM) for Mezam and Menchum (Ngangwa, 2006). The North West Provincial Committee was charged with the responsibility of channelling whatever aid was sent to the victims of the disaster and to ensure their well-being by providing them with clothing and medical care.

International community and the Lake Nyos gas disaster

The Lake Nyos disaster was not the preoccupation of the Cameroon Government alone. The entire world regretted the massive lost of souls following the disaster. Following President Paul Biya’s request for international assistance (Cameroon, 1986), several countries provided aid for the survivors of the disaster in different forms, including the provision of financial, material, medical and scientific assistance. The countries that furnished financial assistance to the survivors of the disaster were Zaire, Canada, Gabon, Holland, Switzerland, Nigeria and the United States of America. It is estimated that Non-Governmental Organisations from different countries sent an amount of , US$352,389, (1986 dollars) to the survivors of the disaster (Belinga & Njilah, 2003).

Turning to material aid, it is worthwhile to elucidate the material assistance that the survivors received from foreign countries. The different countries of the world sent, camp beds, blankets, mosquito tents, tea ingredients, medical equipment and drugs of different kinds. Ngangwa asserts that the following quantities of food stuffs were received by the survivors from foreign countries in (tones): rice (546), dried vegetable (3), vegetable oil (23), powder milk (11), tin milk (286), biscuits (3), fish (7), meat (3), tomatoes (1), groundnuts (2), mineral water (15 tons), and sugar (300kg).

The assistance received from Israel included the then Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Perez responded positively by visiting Cameroon himself. Perez and his convoy landed in Yaounde on 25th August 1986. In his convoy were seventeen medical officers and varied medical supplies. The prompt intervention of the Israeli Prime minister made a substantial contribution to rescuing the survivors of the Lake Nyos gas disaster.

France also showed deep concern for the victims of the disaster. Several French scientists visited Cameroon shortly after the disaster. The then first Lady of France, Mrs Mitterrand, visited Cameroon immediately after the disaster. She was honoured by an exceptional protocol at the Douala International Airport led by Jeanne Irene Biya, the then wife of the President of the Republic of Cameroon. On 11 September 1986, Mrs Mitterrand was accompanied by Jeanne Irene Biya to the disaster stricken zone. The presence of the French First Lady spurred the social and medical workers who were attending to the victims of the disaster in the hospital that she visited. Until this day, an estimated amount of 500,000,000 F CFA has been invested by the French Government to make Lake Nyos a risk-free zone.

Resettlement Camps

Temporary resettlement sites

Temporary resettlement sites were established for disaster victims, especially for treatment purposes, before their being transported to permanent resettlement sites. The primary factors taken into consideration for resettling the survivors were ethnic identity and the former village where the survivor had resided. For instance, in Kimbi and Kumfutu camps, separate sections were created for the Bum and Fulani ethnic groups.

In terms of provisions available at the temporary resettlements, there was lodging, health care and educational facilities available. To derive adequate lodging facilities, the police, soldiers and religious bodies set up tents in the various camps. The camps were generously provided with pots, buckets, beds and blankets (Interview with Fadimatou).

The resettlement of the disaster victims was the primary concern of the Cameroon Government that had as a duty to evacuate the survivors to risk-free zones. Next in importance was burying the decomposed bodies and dead animals (cattle, goats, sheep, fowls, donkey, rabbits and others). The government regrouped the displaced victims into camps in order to ease the distribution of emergency aid. These first camps were the temporary resettlement sites. During the first week of the disaster, the government faced the problem of where to establish the first camp because the neighbouring villages to Nyos (the village where the lake was situated) such as Cha and Subum were already officially declared high risk zones. Details of the locations of victims during the first week of resettlement following the occurrence of the disaster are shown in Table 1.

TABLE 1: Temporary resettlement camps during the first week of Lake Nyos disaster

Resettlement camp

Number of survivors

Wum hospital


Catholic Mission
























Source: Adapted with modifications from Puis Benjeng Soh, The Lake Nyos Catastrophe, 1985, p. 37.

Table 1 indicates that a total of 4,133 survivors were resettled during the first week of the disaster. The highest number (907) of survivors was resettled at the Bafmeng camp. Some 125 survivors were resettled at Mbuh, the smallest, resettlement camp. In due course, the government felt it necessary to come out with another programme of temporary resettlement camps (see Table 2).

  TABLE 2: Temporary resettlement camps in February 1987





















Catholic Mission












Source: Adapted with modification from Ngangwa, “ Lake Nyos”, p. 47.

 Table 2 indicates that slightly more men were found in the temporary resettlement camps of February 1987 than women. Men numbered 1,077 while the corresponding number of women was 999. Also, more survivors were resettled at the Kimbi and Misaje camps. There were 783 survivors at Kimbi and 428 at Misaje. As time evolved, the Cameroon Government deemed it wise to create permanent resettlement sites for the survivors.

Permanent resettlement sites

Permanent resettlement was the third and major phase of the rehabilitation programme for the Lake Nyos survivors. The prime objective of the programme was to construct permanent resettlement sites and assist the survivors to re-establish normal lifestyles. This emanated from the fact that many of the survivors had become wanderers in neighbouring villages and therefore needed to be resettled permanently. The construction of permanent sites for the survivors commenced immediately after the International Conference on the Lake Nyos gas disaster was held in Yaounde from 18 to 20 March 1987. The conference participants made it abundantly clear that the gas-affected site could not be habited in the short term ( Cameroon, 1987).

Expert contractors from the ministries of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Agriculture were selected to study sites for the permanent resettlement of survivors. The initial construction funds for these sites were derived from the national committee for the Reception and Management of Relief Aid for the Lake Nyos Disaster victims (Ngangwa 2006). The first sites to be constructed included Ipalim, Yemgeh, Kumfutu, Esu, Waidu, Kimbi and Bwabwa (Interview with Bouba).

The construction of permanent resettlement sites for the Lake Nyos victims had several repercussions. First, several nuclear families were separated because the experts who designed the programme took into consideration ethnic affinity and not marital relations. Even in extended families, relatives were permanently separated by distances measured in tens of kilometres. Second, permanent resettlement sites were expected to have abundant fertile land for crop cultivation and grazing. But ironically, this factor was not adequately taken into consideration and resulted in considerable longer term dissatisfaction with the permanent resettlement sites. The Fulanis suffered most because their chief economic activity was cattle raising and the land assigned to them for pastoral purposes was insufficient for this purpose.

After drawing the plans of the houses to be built in the permanent resettlement sites, construction work began with the assistance of some able-bodied survivors. The survivors were partially responsible for making the compressed mud bricks that would be used for construction, levelling of foundations and fetching for water. As soon as the construction of the houses was completed, the survivors were lodged in and quickly reintegrated into farming - both crops cultivation and cattle raising - on the limited land assigned to them. The uncomfortable life lived by survivors in the permanent resettlement camps is worth some additional discussion.

Life in resettlement camps after twenty-one years

Life in the resettlement camps 21 years after the Lake Nyos disaster was not the best. Inhabitants in Upkwa, Buabua, Kimbi 1, Kimbi 2, Esu, Ipalim, KumFutu 1, Kumfutu 2 and Yemnge camps took time off during the 21st anniversary celebrations in Wum to remember the sad incident which killed over 1,800 people. It was also time for the survivors to express how difficult life had been away from their ancestral land since they were resettled. Amongst the many problems presented to Governor Koumpa Issa was that they had been crying in the rain for standard educational facilities, health and road infrastructure. Aboubaka Sulemanu, a representative of the survivors said accessibility to their camps was a nightmare, while some camps had schools without roofs, their living houses were dilapidated and there was great need for well-equipped health facilities. Many of their children could not be educated because parents could not afford their academic requirements granted the fact that they were financially poor (Etaka, 2007).

Another crucial problem advocated by the survivors was that of inadequate land for grazing and farming purposes. The survivors complained that the 30 to 50 square metres of land allotted to each family was too small. Djibril who raised cattle at the Kumfutu 1 Resettlement Camp put it in the clearest terms that we “cannot graze our cows. We cannot even farm on the land to feed our families. So what are we doing here?” (Musa, 1987). Longing for home Djibril adds: “In Nyos we had fertile land enough for grazing and crops cultivation.” Seventy-three-year-old John Ngong Njang who lived at Ipalim camp, also complained of not being able to farm on the small piece of land he was given. He further complained that when they grow crops, these are destroyed by cattle kept by others in different camps. Njang concludes that at least back in Nyos they had abundant land on which they cultivated a variety of crops which were not destroyed by livestock and of course their meals were always guaranteed.

Concerning the marketing of the few crops cultivated by the survivors, Jeremiah Ful complained that: “we have been in hell ever since they abandoned us here. There is no good thing, no feeding, no clothing, and no health care. We are dying without help. Government officials came here several times to ask us what we wanted. They made promises and disappeared. Since 1989, we have not seen anybody.” Shifting to health, Ful had this to say: “The nearest health post to our camps is twenty kilometres away, and it takes about five hours to trek there. For a sick person, it takes a whole day. This is why some patients have died on the way due to the lack of opportunity to have appropriate medical attention.

However, the 21 st anniversary (held in 2007) which featured an ecumenical service to remember the dead, came as a blessing to the survivors. Governor Koumpa Issa travelled to Wum with a message of hope and encouragement to the survivors. He had a giant government project for the over 15,574 survivors who were still alive. It was all smiles when he announced that CFA 24 billion had targeted the Lake Nyos project to relocate survivors. The project, he said, has to do with the degassing of the lake which is on course, construction of houses, schools, health centres, roads and other amenities. It will also involve the construction of a monument to immortalize those who lost their lives during the tragic incident.

Commemorating the Lake Nyos disaster after 21 years, the Government of Cameroon handed gifts to the survivors worth CFA 15 million. The gifts comprised beds, corn mills, mattresses, bags of rice and salt, tins of oil and school needs. Financial assistance to orphans was handed to the different leaders of the nine resettlement camps. Handing over the gifts, Governor Koumpa Issa said the offer was simply symbolic as the government cannot pay back the human lives lost in the Nyos disaster. He assured the survivors that their well-being has always been the concern of the government. He told them not to feel abandoned as the government was seriously working on the Nyos project to ensure that their living conditions were as comfortable as they were before they resettled from their original Nyos homes.

Conclusions and Recommendations

On 21 August 1986, a toxic chemical gas emitted from Lake Nyos and caused the death of some 1,800 people and led to the displacement of many thousand of others. Livestock and different species of wildlife were also killed in the event which attracted international and national attention. The home-based and foreign scientists believed that CO2 gas in the depths of the volcanic Lake Nyos had gradually accumulated over a long period of time, until it finally reached a saturation point and was released, descending the volcano’s high ground as an invisible cloud that displaced essential air and suffocated people and animals. Tests revealed a high concentration of sodium bicarbonate in the water of the lake.

The scale of the disaster led to much study on how a recurrence could be prevented. Estimates of the rate of carbon dioxide entering Lake Nyos suggested that out gassing 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 dangerous gas escape much sooner. 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 diphase fluid and thus makes the process self-powered.

Due to fear of a recurrence of the Lake Nyos gas disaster, the residents of the three villages - Cha, Nyos and Subum - that were affected by the disaster were forcefully resettled by the Cameroon Government in other villages. Prior to resettling the victims in new villages, they were initially resettled in temporary camps where they were treated from coma, burns, respiratory problems (bronchitis), conjunctivitis, diarrhoea and many other illnesses.

We may now turn to some recommendations that if taken into consideration may avert the occurrence of another disaster at the Lake Nyos and also improve the living standard of the victims. First, the process of degassing of Lake Nyos, which has already begun, should be accelerated because it is currently estimated that carbon dioxide concentration in the lake increases by 5.0x10 6 m 3 annually. It is now obvious that if the process of degassing is not enhanced, another disaster will inevitably occur in a few years time and might affect villages as far as in neighbouring Nigeria.

Second, the land assigned to the survivors of the disaster should be increased as the survivors have been persistently arguing of insufficient grazing and farming land. If the land allocated to the survivors is increased, it obviously improves their lots and consequently, some people may no longer seek to return to the dangerous lake’s vicinity.

Third, social amenities such as schools and hospitals should be established in all the resettlement villages and equipped with medical equipment, nurses and doctors to reduce the long-distance trekking currently required to reach hospitals, which is much too far for most people. If this is done, it will not only significantly improve the living standards of the survivors but it will help heal the scar of the disaster in their minds. In view of the above analysis, it is evident that the Lake Nyos disaster survivors were not displaced from their homes by man-made acts of war or famine, but by an unprecedented environmental disaster. However, the mitigation of the CO2 gas hazard is requiring a man-made solution due to the ongoing natural degassing of CO2. A combination of technological innovation in terms of artificially controlled degassing of the lake and policy change regarding the provision of land and community resources are required for returning life the communities displaced by the disaster for more than two decades.


Belinga, S. M. E. and Njilah, I. (2003). Du mont Cameroun au lac Nyos ,Yaoundé: les classiques Camerounaise.

Bouba, Interviewed 14 November 2008. Aged 53 years, trader, Wum.

Cameroon Tribune, (Friday 29 August 1986). N° 637.

Cameroon Tribune, (Tuesday 17 March 1987). N° 695.

Cameroon Tribune (Tuesday 24 March 1987). N° 695.

Etaka, R.L. August 30 th 2007. The 21 st anniversary: CFA 24 Billion Project of Hope for Nyos Survivors, Unpublished report presented at the International Conference on Lake Nyos, Yaounde, 17p.

Fadimatou, Interviewed 5 November 2008. Aged 42 years, victim of Lake Nyos gas disaster, Wum.

Lockwood. J.P. (1986). How Volcanoes Work: Lake Nyos. Assessed on 18 August 2008 from http://www.geology.sdsu.edu/how_volcanoes_work/Nyos.html

Kanno, F. T. (2003). “The Evolution and Contributions of the Wum Rural Council (WRC) to the Development of Wum Central Sub-Division 1916- 1996”, M.A. Dissertation, University of Yaounde 1.

Musa, T., 1987. Environment Bulletin-Cameroon: Lake Nyos Survivors stucked in Resettlement Camps. Unpublished Assessment Report prepared for the Minister of Enviromental Protection, Cameroon. 89p.

Ngangwa, M. N. (2006). "National and International Communities in the Management of the Lake Nyos Gas Disaster", M.A. Dissertation, University of Yaounde 1.

Ngong, Emmanuel, interviewed 7 November, 2008. Aged 70 years, farmer, Wum.

Fotabong, C. & Fossung, A. 1986. Report by the Sub Commission in charge of Assessing Domestic Animals loss during the lake Nyos gas disaster. Unpublished Report submitted to Wum Rural Council, 23p.

Smith, E. (Tuesday 21 August 2007). Cameroon: Remembering Lake Nyos gas Disaster. Personal Communication.

Soter, E. 24 March 1987. International Scientific Conference on Lake Nyos Catastrophe: Consensus over gas origins. Unpublished paper presented during International Scientific Conference in Yaounde. 27p.

Tchuente, P.K. (1987). Lake Nyos Gas Disaster. Personal communication.

Wango, James. Interviewed 8 November 2008. Aged 55 years, farmer, Wum.


Forka Leypey Mathew Fomine © 2011. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

| Home | Current | Back Issues | Reports | Conferences | Books | Links | Information |

Comments to
Massey University, New Zealand
URL: http://trauma.massey.ac.nz/

Last changed 11 July, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Massey University