Why floods in Libya caused high death toll

Reeling under a bloody civil war since 2011, Libya faces catastrophic floods, which has left thousands of people dead in a number of cities in the eastern part of the war-torn North African country.

The main cause of these deadly floods is Storm Daniel, which hit Libya along with other Mediterranean cities such as Gaza, a Palestinian enclave, and the Sudanese coast. But experts say that years of civil war which divided the country in two different power-centres in the west and east, have largely paralysed Libyan state institutions, preventing essential measures to be taken concerning disaster management.

While the country’s UN-recognised Tripoli government and Benghazi-based eastern forces under the military leadership of Khalifa Haftar, a warlord, agreed to form a unity government in 2021, various militias under opposing political factions have continued to rule different parts of Libya. The disaster has mainly impacted the areas under Haftar’s control.

“Honestly speaking, all of the cities hit by floods were waiting for such a disaster even before the 2011 revolution. Dams holding rain water were so old and needed repairs since the Qaddafi era. But dams did not get any repairs,” says Johr Ali, an Istanbul-based Libyan political activist. He believes this negligence led to the collapse of dams, compounding the scope of the disaster.

Ali is also a native of Derna, which is the worst flood-hit city in Libya and the North Africa’s Mediterranean coast. At least a quarter of the city, which has a population of 125,000, has disappeared from the face of the earth, according to local sources.

Ali believes that tens of thousands of people might be dead. Official sources put the death toll around 6,000. But in a recent statement, Derna’s mayor, Abdulmenam al Ghaithi, made a gloomy assessment that just the city’s death toll could reach 20,000.

Unheeded warnings

Authorities and governments going in and out in eastern Libya, which has been in a political turmoil for much of the time since the civil war, have not heard “different calls from specialists demanding urgent need to repair dams. But there was no reply to their calls,” Ali tells TRT World. As a result, when the disaster hit, things went upside down completely, he says.

Abdelwanees A. R. Ashoor, a hydrologist at Libya’s Omar Al-Mukhtar University, sternly warned authorities in a research paper published last year that “repeated flooding of the seasonal riverbed, or wadi”, could lead to grave dangers to Derna, calling urgent measures to repair the dams.

“If a huge flood happens the result will be catastrophic for the people of the wadi and the city,” his paper predicted.

Amount of water brought by Storm Daniel was so enormous that they reached the fifth floor of Derna’s houses in the middle of the city, according to Ali. When Storm Daniel’s huge water volume breached one of the dams, there was a big sound across the city, shaking its buildings, says Ali.

Eventually, on the night of September 11, the water from the two dams and the storm swept most of Derna’s neighbourhoods into the Mediterranean Sea, killing thousands of its residents, he says, adding that the entire city was asleep.

“People were dragged to the sea inside their homes,” says the native of Derna. Due to this tragic fact, casualties continue to grow, he adds.

The endemic corruption in the eastern part of Libya under Haftar is a big cause of such large-scale casualties, says Ali. In recent years, the Tripoli government sent millions of dollars to the eastern administration under Haftar for the repair of Derna’s infrastructure, including dams, but these funds were allegedly mismanaged, Ali says.

International aid

Disaster-hit areas across Libya’s Mediterranean coast are not receiving adequate aid, according to Ali. “The only international aid people saw on the ground is from Türkiye,” he says.

Türkiye has developed strong ties with the Tripoli government as Ankara has been working hard to end the civil war through its mediation between western and eastern forces.

“We are expecting more international aid,” he says, adding that the aid sent to the disaster-hit areas is not enough to meet the needs of the flood victims.

He also urged both Türkiye and other countries to deliver their aid “directly” to people, not through Haftar-led armed groups that are ruling the eastern part of the country.

“They are not trustworthy,” he says.



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