Lake Kivu


Welcome to Lake Kivu that is shared between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, is by far the largest. Lake Kivu is one of the African Great Lakes which lies on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and is in the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift. Lake Kivu empties into the Ruzizi River which flows southwards into Lake Tanganyika.


Lake Kivu is approximately 90 km (56 mi) long and 50 km (31 mi) wide. Its irregular shape makes measuring its precise surface area difficult; it has been estimated to cover a total surface area of some 2,700 km2 (1,040 sq mi). The surface of the lake sits at a height of 1,460 meters (4,790 ft) above sea level. This lake has a chance of erupting every 1000 years. The lake has a maximum depth of 475 m (1,558 ft) and a mean depth of 220 m (722 ft), making it the world’s eighteenth deepest lake by maximum depth, and the ninth deepest by mean depth.

Some 1,370 km2 or 58 percent of the lake’s waters lie within DRC borders.

The lake bed sits upon a rift valley that is slowly being pulled apart, causing volcanic activity in the area.

The World’s tenth-largest island on a lake (Idjwi) lies in Lake Kivu within the boundaries of Virunga National Park. Settlements on the lake’s shore include Bukavu, Kabare, Kalehe, Sake and Goma in Congo, and Gisenyi, Kibuye, and Cyangugu in Rwanda.


Lake Kivu is a fresh water lake and, along with Cameroonian Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun is one of three that are known to undergo limnic eruptions. Around the lake, geologists found evidence of massive biological extinctions about every thousand years, presumably caused by out gassing events. The trigger for lake overturns is unknown in Lake Kivu’s case, but volcanic activity is suspected. The gaseous chemical composition of exploding lakes is unique to each lake, in Lake Kivu’s case, methane and carbon dioxide due to lake water interaction with a volcano.

The amount of methane is estimated to be 65 cubic kilometers. If burnt over one year, it would give an average power of about 100 Giga-watts for the whole period. There is also an estimated 256 cubic kilometers of carbon dioxide. The water temperature is 24 °C, and the pH level is about 8.6. The methane is reported to be produced by microbial reduction of the volcanic CO2. A future overturn and gas release from the deep waters of Lake Kivu would result in catastrophe, dwarfing the historically documented lake overturns at Lakes Nyos and Monoun. The lives of the approximately two million people who live in the lake basin area would be in jeopardy.

Cores from the Bukavu Bay area of the lake reveal that the bottom has layered deposits of the rare mineral monohydrocalcite interlain with diatoms, on top of sapropelic sediments with high pyrite content. These are found at three different intervals. The sapropelic layers are believed to be related to hydrothermal discharge and the diatoms to a bloom which reduced the carbon dioxide levels low enough to precipitiate mono hydrocalcite.

Scientists hypothesise that sufficient volcanic interaction with the lake’s bottom water that has high gas concentrations would heat water, force the methane out of the water, spark a methane explosion, and trigger a nearly simultaneous release of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then suffocate large numbers of people in the lake basin as the gases roll off the lake surface. It is also possible that the lake could spawn lake tsunamis as gas explodes out of it.

The risk posed by Lake Kivu began to be understood during the analysis of more recent events at Lake Nyos. Lake Kivu’s methane was originally thought to be merely a cheap natural resource for export, and for the generation of cheap power. Once the mechanisms those caused lake overturns began to be understood, so did awareness of the risk the lake posed to the local population.

An experimental vent pipe was installed at Lake Nyos in 2001 to remove gas from the deep water, but such a solution for the much larger Lake Kivu would be considerably more expensive. No plan has been initiated to reduce the risk posed by Lake Kivu. The approximately 500 million tons of carbon dioxide in the lake is a little under 2 percent of the amount released annually by human fossil fuel burning. Therefore, the process of releasing it could potentially have costs beyond building and operating the system.

This problem associated with the prevalence of methane is that of mazuku, the Swahili term “evil wind” for the out gassing of methane and carbon dioxide that kills people and animals, and can even kill vegetation when in high enough concentration.

Methane extraction

Lake Kivu has recently been found to contain approximately 55 billion cubic meters (1.94 trillion cubic feet) of dissolved biogas at a depth of 300 meters (1,000 ft). Until 2004, extraction of the gas was done on a small scale, with the extracted gas being used to run boilers at the Bralirwa brewery in Gisenyi.  As far as large-scale exploitation of this resource is concerned, the Rwandan government has negotiated with a number of parties to produce methane from the lake.

In 2011 Contour Global, a UK-based energy company focused on emerging markets, secured project financing to initiate a large-scale methane extraction project. The project is run through a local Rwandan entity called Kivu – Watt, using an offshore barge platform to extract, separate, and clean the gasses obtained from the lake bed before pumping purified methane via an underwater pipeline to on-shore gas engines. Stage one of the Project powering three “gensets” along the lake shore and supplying 26 MW of electricity to the local grid, has since been completed. The next phase aims to deploy nine additional “gensets” at 75 MW to create a total capacity of over 100 MW.

In addition to managing gas extraction, Kivu – Watt will also manage the electrical generation plants and on-sell the electrical power to the Rwandan government under the terms of a long-term Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). This allows Kivu – Watt to control a vertically integrated energy offering from point of extraction to point of sale into the local grid. Extraction is said to be cost-effective and relatively simple because once the gas-rich water is pumped up, the dissolved gases (primarily carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and methane) begin to bubble out as the water pressure gets lower. This project is expected to increase Rwanda’s energy generation capability by as much as 20 times and will enable Rwanda to sell electricity to neighboring African countries. The firm was awarded the 2011 Africa Power deal of the year for innovation in the financing arrangements it obtained from various sources for the Kivu-Watt project. The $200 million power plant was operating at 26 MW in 2016.

Biology and fisheries

The fish fauna in Lake Kivu is relatively poor with 28 described species, including four introduced species. The natives are the Lake Rukwa minnow (Raiamas moorii), four species of barb (Ripon barbel, Barbus altianalis, East African red-finned barb, Enteromius apleurogramma, Redspot barb, Enteromius kerstenii and Pellegrin’s barb, Enteromius pellegrini), an Amphilius catfish, two Clarias catfish (C. liocephalus and C. gariepinus), Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) and 15 endemic Haplochromis cichlids.

Another c. 20 possibly undescribed species of cichlids are known from the lake. The introduced species are three cichlids, the longfin tilapia (Oreochromis macrochir), O. leucostictus and redbreast tilapia (Coptodon rendalli), and a clupeid, the Lake Tanganyika sardine, Limnothrissa miodon.

The exploitable stock of the Lake Tanganyika sardine was estimated at 2000–4000 tons per year. It was introduced to Lake Kivu in the late 1959 by a Belgian Engineer A. Collart. At present, Lake Kivu is the sole natural lake in which L. miodon, a sardine originally restricted to Lake Tanganyika, has been introduced initially to fill an empty niche. Prior to the introduction, no planktivorous fish was present in the pelagic waters of Lake Kivu. In the early 1990s, the number of fishers on the lake was 6,563, of which 3,027 were associated with the pelagic fishery and 3,536 with the traditional fishery. Widespread armed conflict in the surrounding region from the mid-1990s resulted in a decline in the fisheries harvest.

Following this introduction, the sardine has gained substantial economic and nutritional importance for the lakeside human population but from an ecosystem standpoint, the introduction of planktivorous fish may result in important modifications of plankton community structure. Recent observations showed the disappearance during the last decades of a large grazer, Daphnia curvirostris, and the dominance of mesozooplankton community by three species of cyclopoid copepod: Thermocyclops consimilis, Mesocyclops aequatorialis and Tropocyclops confinis.

The first comprehensive phytoplankton survey was released in 2006. With an annual average chlorophyll a in the mixed layer of 2.2 mg m−3 and low nutrient levels in the euphotic zone, the lake is clearly oligotrophic. Diatoms are the dominant group in the lake, particularly during the dry season episodes of deep mixing. During the rainy season, the stratified water column, with high light and lower nutrient availability, favor dominance of cyanobacteria with high numbers of phototrophic picoplankton. The actual primary production is 0.71 g C m−2 d−1 (≈ 260 g C m−2 a−1).

A study of evolutionary genetics showed that the cichlids from lakes in northern Virunga (e.g., Edward, George, Victoria) would have evolved in a “proto – Lake Kivu”, much older than the intense volcanic activity (20,000-25,000 years ago) which cut the connection.

The elevation of the mountains west of the lake (which is currently the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, one of the largest reserves of eastern lowland (or Grauer’s) gorillas in the world), combined with the elevation of the eastern rift (located in eastern Rwanda) would be responsible for drainage of water from central Rwanda in the actual Lake Kivu.

This concept of “proto – Lake Kivu” was challenged by lack of consistent geological evidence although the cichlid’s molecular clock suggests the existence of a lake much older than the commonly cited 15,000 years.

Lake Kivu is the home of four species of freshwater crab, including two non-endemics (Potamonautes lirrangensis and P. mutandensis) and two endemics (P. bourgaultae and P. idjwiensis). Among Rift Valley lakes, Lake Tanganyika is the only other with endemic freshwater crabs.