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Lake Kivu is one of the youngest of the African Great Lakes. Located in the Rift Valley, Lake Kivu is thought to be only 15,000 years old. Forming part of the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the lake formed during the Pleistocene Era when volcanic events in the Virunga Mountains blocked these southern areas from the River Nile Basin to the north. Some of the volcanoes are still active as evidenced by two volcanoes on the northern shore: Nyiragongo erupted in January 1977 and again in January 2002. Nyamulagira erupts every few years.
The lake is exceptionally deep as it lies within the rift itself which is continually widening. The huge 550,000-acre lake's primary outlet is the Ruzizi River which empties into Lake Tanganyika to the south. Two million people live along the lake's shore and often depend on the lake for their livelihood as a food and water source. As the two developing countries struggle to modernize, Lake Kivu can represent both a blessing and a curse. Lake Kivu's deep waters conceal copious amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. The methane can offer a huge amount of fuel for power generation if it can be safely tapped. But both gases can also kill-and have in the past. Maintaining the careful balance while relieving the volume of gases and capturing the methane has been the subject of years of ongoing study.
Several of the larger cities along the shoreline are considered resort destinations. Goma and Bukavu, DRC and Kibuye and Cyangugu, Rwanda all hold resort hotels and guest quarters. Some are very luxurious, with pristine white sand beaches, swimming pools and luxury rooms or cottages. Others are more basic and are often found at a more affordable price. The lake is breathtakingly picturesque, with steep, forested and terraced hillsides descending to the water's edge. Although not prohibited, swimming in the lake itself is usually not recommended due to the incidence of water-born tropical diseases and cholera in some areas. From these hotels, visitors can arrange for tour guides to lead them to such popular destinations as Parc National des Volcans to the north for mountain gorilla tracking or Nyungwe Forest National Park to view chimpanzees. Unfortunately, another popular nearby mountain gorilla range, Virunga National Park, is currently closed due to active fighting in the area. Sadly the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced a series of armed conflicts which threaten these endangered creatures. The services of a reputable guide service is necessary to assure tourists' safety when desiring to visit these areas.
As surface travel is rather primitive due to poor roads, most visitors arrive by air via one of several airports near the larger cities. Once at Lake Kivu, travel is usually by boat between lakefront cities. Some boating lines operate large cruise-type ships on a regular schedule between larger cities and some of the islands. Arrangements may also be made to travel via smaller speedboats, which are best for accessing the smaller villages. Evening cruises are especially spectacular as passengers can often see the red glow of lava flowing from the summit of one of the volcanoes.
Sport fishing isn't a particularly popular sport at Lake Kivu, mainly because the few species of fish that are most common in the lake are not considered popular angler's prey. Local fishermen on the lake primarily net tilapia, indugu and isambaza, a sardine-like fish introduced into the lake from Lake Tanganyika in the 1960s to increase the available food supply. Overfishing has recently depleted some species, and the lake is currently closed to fishing until numbers recover. The native fishing craft are unique, consisting of three dug-out canoe-type craft connected by timbers with nets strung between them. There appears to be no sport boating on the lake to speak of yet but likely will develop as facilities around the lakeshore improve. With a shoreline of over 250 miles, Lake Kivu offers much space for improvement and modernization once electrical power and clean drinking water are available to the populace.
The gases trapped beneath the surface of Lake Kivu can cause the same kinds of disastrous outcomes as the explosive escape of carbon dioxide at lakes in Cameroon in recent years. The deep lakes all have water that remains stratified; bottom layers of water never mix with higher layers. The gases eventually reach saturation limits within the water. It is somewhat unclear what eventually causes a limnic explosion of the gases, but both volcanic and seismic activity are thought to contribute. In other cases, it appears temperature changes may lead to the highly-carbonated water rising rapidly upward with such force it can actually create a small tsunami. Both Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun in Cameroon have experienced limnic eruptions in which carbon dioxide was released in large quantities from the depths of the lakes and suffocated people and animals on-shore in low-lying areas. Both lakes contain carbon dioxide-saturated waters at the deepest levels due to underwater volcanic activity.
At Lake Kivu, there are occasional deaths of persons who are caught in pockets of carbon dioxide near the lake, and some native swimmers have complained of becoming light-headed and disoriented while swimming, possibly due to carbon dioxide escaping. However, microbial reduction of volcanic CO2 in Lake Kivu has also produced a huge quantity of methane trapped within the depths of the lake. Luckily, there has been no major limnic eruption of these gases at Lake Kivu, although small releases of carbon dioxide have occurred in response to earthquake activity. Until major studies were undertaken after the eruption of Lake Nyos, the danger hidden in the depths of Lake Kivu wasn't fully realized.
A plan is being devised in conjunction with the Rwandan government to 'mine' the methane in Lake Kivu as fuel to generate electricity. The amount of trapped methane is estimated to be enough to power Rwanda's electricity needs for several generations. Small amounts of methane are being drawn off already to fire steam boilers for local industrial power; a much larger plan in the works will remove major amounts of the methane for use while pumping the carbon dioxide back into the water. Scientists aren't quite sure yet what is the best solution for dealing with the carbon dioxide; the total amount dissolved in the water is thought to equal about 2% of the earth's existing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Removing it also increases the water's salinity. Leaving it there is dangerous in the long run due to possible explosive activity. Studies are still ongoing to determine the best ways to reduce both the methane and the carbon dioxide levels for safety without damaging the environment.
Certainly, cheap electrical power can do wonders for both tourism and industrial development in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, enriching the lives of their citizens. Increased prosperity would likely also tend to calm tribal tensions and armed uprisings. When that occurs, Lake Kivu will no doubt become one of the hottest resort destinations in the Rift Valley. This majestic lake is worth a visit, as are the nearby reserves for the mountain gorillas and other native animals.
*Statistics are assumed to be approximate as published figures for the lake vary.
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