Why risk education must be part of any integrated response to unplanned explosions

On Sunday, 7 March, Bata, a city in Equatorial Guinea, was rocked by four enormous explosions. While there has been no full inquiry yet, it looks like explosive stores and weapon depots were the source of the horrendous blasts that left at least 108 persons killed and more than 600 injured.

Human rights groups say these figures are likely to be on the low side. A radius of 800m around the blast centre looks like a war zone, with buildings completely flattened or burnt out, and the blasts resulted in ammunition such as rockets and artillery shells being blown out of the depots into the neighbouring areas.

The population of Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony in Central Africa, is not used to war. People are not aware of the danger of handling such ordnance. Pictures show people posing with artillery shells sharing the photos on social media – a high risk pursuit that might easily result in fatalities and more serious injury.

At the time of writing, international emergency response teams, co-ordinated by the UN, are scrambling to deliver assistance: conducting rapid assessment of continued risks and making the area as safe as possible by dealing with the unexploded shells and other ordnance littering the blast area.

But the social media posts that have emerged, showing people posing with deadly artillery shells thrown out by the blast, demonstrate that emergency risk education for the affected population is an essential and urgent part of any integrated response to such blasts.

The explosion and its aftermath are strikingly similar to the devastating blasts that occurred almost exactly nine years ago of an army arms depot in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. At least 250 people were killed. Total injuries exceeded 2,300 and more than 13,800 people were left homeless.

In Brazzaville, MAG conducted assessments and sent teams of technicians to search the affected area. The teams removed and destroyed almost 200,000 dangerous items. Critically, however, MAG also delivered comprehensive risk education to keep the local population safe: conducting 195 safety briefings, 596 risk education sessions, and distributing 3,818 safety leaflets and 674 posters.

The people of Bata need exactly such an integrated response to ensure no more lives are needlessly lost in the aftermath of this devastating blast.