It would be hard to find another place on earth where the improvement of transportation is more impactful on the wellbeing of a population than in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here, transportation is so severely underdeveloped that travel to other provinces is sometimes nearly impossible, if not downright dangerous.
Connecting eastern DRC with the rest of the country—and with the outside world—offers the region a new lease on life, and is crucial to peace and development. For far too long, tragedy and suffering have been the status quo in these eastern provinces rife with conflict. Since 1998, over 3.5 million people have died and millions have fled their homes due to persistent violence and insecurity.
Despite this difficult past, every time the small propeller plane clears the last, sometimes very turbulent, cumulus clouds in preparation for landing at the partially destroyed runway of the Goma airport, my eyes catches a different side of eastern DRC. I see the best that Mother Nature has to offer, everything from forests and fertile land, to water and mountains. These natural gifts are only matched by the unparalleled resilience of the local population to manmade and natural disasters.
At the exit of the airport, or in the streets of Goma, or even at the “petite passerelle”, a place where women entrepreneurs engage in small cross-border trade with neighboring Rwanda, you are greeted by locals who have stood strong in the face of adversity and have great hope for the future. Over the years, they have absorbed and recovered from a never-ending series of shocks, and every time, they have managed to adapt and transform their means of living in what are very unforgiving circumstances. They have even learned to live with Mount Nyiragongo, which last erupted in 2002 causing the deaths of more than 140 people and destroying a large part of Goma, including its airport.
The current peace and stability in eastern DRC remain fragile and the population’s hopes may be jeopardized at any moment, given the region’s natural wealth and history of violence and conflict. There is no doubt that humanitarian assistance and peace keeping have been and will remain essential to maintaining this stability. It will also play a role in responding to any immediate crises that may develop. However, in order to foster lasting peace, the root causes of conflict—land disputes, social cohesion, governance, economic opportunities—need to be addressed in order to do away with the “market of violence”.
This is why an investment program to reconstruct the airport of Goma has become a priority, and is benefiting from a $52 million grant from the World Bank, in the form of the Goma Airport Safety Improvement Project. The volcano damage to Goma’s airport has, since 2002, hindered access to the entire region, including for humanitarian aid and peace keeping operations. There have been seven recorded air crashes since 2002 at the airport with dozens of fatalities. Rebuilding the airport and improving its safety and security is expected to trigger a cascade of benefits for immediate humanitarian aid operations, as well as small and medium enterprises specializing in purely local products like Gouda cheese, coffee production, fishing, and other high-value agriculture products. The local tourism industry will also benefit; after all, Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Africa’s most biologically diverse protected area, is only miles away.
In fragile environments like eastern DRC, transportation investments have even greater impacts when they are accompanied by interventions to support social cohesion or reduce vulnerability. The project also strengthens the resilience of the local population by investing in the Goma Volcanic Observatory and in disaster risk management in the region of Goma. It supports labor-intensive public works using the abundant volcanic basaltic rocks, which in turn creates opportunities for economic development. Through the multifaceted ambitious nature of the project, keys elements such as economic opportunities and resilience are being put in place to support the stabilization and regional integration of the Great Lakes region.
Goma is not only open for business. It’s also ready to take off.