Thursday, April 22, 2010




By Jerry Okungu

Nairobi, Kenya

April 22, 2010

The impact was felt everywhere thousands of miles across the globe. Eight thousand passengers were stranded everywhere from Tokyo to Timbuktu, Canada to Casablanca, Beijing to Barcelona and from Cape Town to Cairo. It was felt in Melbourne and Maputo, Nairobi and New York, Amsterdam and Atlanta and from Montreal to Mombasa. No busy city in the world was spared not even Kampala and Kuala Lumpur. Dubai and Dakar, Accra and Athens also felt it.

As British Airways suffered its 3000 airline crew stranded all over the world, Kenyan fresh produce farmers suffered losses in hundreds of millions of dollars in rotting horticulture. Fish exporters were not spared either; not to mention the tourism industry that took a beating at two levels; one of frustrated air travelers that could not return home yet had no cash to spend and of course cancelled bookings for new arrivals that never came.

For the airlines like our Kenya Airways with many flights a day to Europe, it was a double loss. They had to meet the costs of accommodation for stranded passengers for the five to six days that they were stranded in Nairobi.

At a personal level, my friend Charles had his ailing mother stranded in London. She could not return home despite the fact that her medical treatment was over. She definitely joined the long line of stranded Kenyans in various capitals around the world such as Kenya's Water Minister Charity Ngilu who was rumored to be trying to travel from London by train all the way to Spain to see if she could get a flight outside the volcanic ash orbit.

My wife Lillian who was homebound from Atlanta was a victim too. On Delta Airline bound for Amsterdam to connect with KLM flight to Nairobi, she had to wait in North America and pray that the dust over Europe would clear.

For some of us who witnessed the volcano smoke billowing from the bowels of the Iceland Mountains, it was a spectacle to behold. It ominously reminded us when the twin towers were blown by terrorists in New York nine years ago. It was a stark reminder that nature could be as mean as mankind when it comes to destruction of mother earth. However, one consolation was that despite the massive destruction caused by this series of volcanoes, no human deaths were reported to this day.

The volcano reminded us of the biblical end of the world when God would unleash fire and brimstone to end the world of sinful humanity. It was therefore possible to forgive the Icelanders around the volcano area for thinking that the end of the world had indeed come.

Seeing the effect of this global tragedy and how it impacted the farthest corners of the globe, it was a clear demonstration of how the world had truly become a global village and how nations are today so dependent on one another.

As we witnessed nature’s drama playing out on our TV screens, experts explained to us an eruption of that magnitude in the same area which had occurred nearly 2000 years ago and the reason the world never felt its impact was because in those ancient times there were no aero planes flying international skies.

So, when all is said and done, what will be the real economic and environmental impact on this one week global disaster?

First the economic losses involving airlines, tourism, lost business opportunities and rotting fresh produce will obviously be enormous. And chances of such losses cascading to the lowest person in the African village cannot be ruled out. Chances of airlines, tourism and horticulture industries laying off people at least temporarily to recoup their financial losses are rather high. The ordinary fisherman along Lake Victoria who depends on middlemen on a daily basis was obviously affected when buyers didn’t show up because airlines suspended their flights.

However, the upside of this disaster was that the amount of pollution emitted into the atmosphere by thousands of aircrafts in our skies went down by 75%, a clear indication that it was not all negative. If this indeed was the case, would airlines consider one week every year when planes would be grounded for the sake of making our planet cleaner?

We must thank our stars that this ash did not linger in our skies for two years like the one that took place 2000 years ago. If it did, our economies and lifestyles would have reverted to the Stone Age era.