Flooding in eastern Libya have been the deadliest disaster of the century in Africa. Derna, a coastal city in eastern Libya, is the epicentre of the catastrophe. At least 6,000 people are confirmed dead and more than 10,000 people are still missing in a deadly catastrophe that left more than 30,000 people displaced according to Ambulance and Emergency Center in Libya. Following torrential rain and strong winds from Storm Daniel, two dams collapsed sweeping away buildings, roads and bridges.
Climate change-induced extreme weather
The flooding in Libya were triggered by Storm Daniel, which raged across Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria before it hit Libya. The storm brought torrential rain and strong winds, which caused the flash floods that, damaged the two dams in Derna and other cities in Libya’s northeast. The city of Derna that was affected the most by the floods usually receives an average monthly rainfall less than 1.5mm in September. Due to Storm Daniel, however, the city received more than 150mm within two days with strong winds of 80kph.
Before it reached Libya, Storm Daniel transitioned into a ‘medicane’ (shorthand for Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone) moving into Libya as an unusually well-formed system with gale-force winds reported northwest of the storm. The storm got stronger as it drew energy from the abnormally warm waters (the Mediterranean reported 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer this year than the past). Medicanes are rarely full-fledged tropical systems with a warm core. In the Mediterranean, one or two medicanes usually form every year. However, they have rarely tracked towards Libya.
The city of Derna is a coastal city that is vulnerable to flooding. It is bisected by a seasonal river, Wadi Derna, which flows from highlands to the south. Two dams (Abu Mansour and Wadi Derna) normally protect the city from flooding. In 2022, research conducted by researchers at Libya’s Sebha University warned of the deteriorating structural integrity of the two dams that collapsed causing flooding. The city’s dams were poorly maintained and the researchers warned of the high risk of flooding in the valley area of the city and the need for routine maintenance of the dams’ infrastructure. However, maintenance of the two dams in Derna was not conducted.
The structural integrity of the dams was vulnerable, because the dams were likely made from dumped compacted soil or rocks, which is not as strong as concrete. Consequently, the dams were susceptible to overtopping (where water exceeds a dam’s capacity) which likely broke the rockfilled dam walls. Earlier, the Ministry of Planning in the Interim National Unity government reviewed the maintenance contracts or the two dams in the city of Derna. The review discovered that the contracts had not been completed, despite the allocation of adequate funds to the maintenance of a total of $8million. The maintenance project included complementary work of lining the course of Wadi Derna dam and construction of another dam to retail silt. The Ministry of Planning noted that the maintenance of the two dams stopped in 2011 and have not been maintained since.
Fragmented government institutions
Libya has been in governance crisis that was driven by the civil war which erupted in 2014. Now, two rival governments, the eastern parliament-backed government based in Benghazi and the internationally recognised government based in Tripoli, govern the country. The civil war that erupted in 2014 led to destruction of infrastructure and left state institutions in weak state to reconstruct and respond to disasters of such magnitude. Emergency response and recovery efforts have proven even more difficult in a country that is run currently by two rivalry governments. Three days before the catastrophic floods, the two government administrations announced separate precautionary measures which complicated the pre-disaster response by communities.
Before conflict arose in 2011, Derna was already a marginalised city of 100,000 whose infrastructure was ailing and the only hospital in the city was a makeshift hospital located in a five-bedroom villa and it failed to withstand the disaster. Following the death of Libyan leader, Gaddafi, Derna became a hotspot of Islamist extremism and later fell under control of Haftar in 2018 and 2019. Little effort was made to reconstruct the infrastructure following the brutal conflict however.
Coordinating emergency response and rescue can prove to be difficult given the fragmentation of government institutions in Libya. The civilian administration that oversees Derna in eastern Libya is incapacitated to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude, while the rivalry administration may have challenges coordinating with the administration in the east given the power struggles that are on-going. Organisations and countries sending aid to Libya might be conflicted where to send aid; to UN-recognised government in Tripoli the capital (some 1,600km from Derna) or to Haftar’s rival government in Benghazi.
A window for post-conflict reconstruction
The catastrophic disaster might be a key window for development stakeholders in Libya to push for effective post-conflict reconstruction. Regardless of the political standoff between the rival governments, so far, the government in Tripoli sent 14tonnes of medical supplies, body bags, and more than 80 doctors and paramedics to the eastern region of Libya. This act might be a sign of cooperation that may motivate the politicians to set aside their differences and form a single government. However, restrain need to be exercised in weighing the optimism. Joint efforts between rival governments while they are rare, they are not unheard. In July 2023, the two administrations formed a committee to oversee the sharing of oil revenue.