Home PodcastJulie Alli Arab Spring Aftermath: How neglected dams led to devastating flood in Libya

Arab Spring Aftermath: How neglected dams led to devastating flood in Libya

by Luqmaan Rawat
A helicopter flies over the flooded city of Derna Photo Twitter/@TheLibyaUpdate

Libya – Since the removal of Muammar Gaddafi during the Arab Uprising in 2011, Libya has been plagued by turmoil, and it now finds itself in the midst of an unparalleled catastrophe. Over 5 000 people are believed to have lost their lives, with an additional 10 000 still missing, following the collapse of two dams in northeastern Libya due to torrential rains. In the city of Derna, located in the eastern region and experiencing the most severe impacts, approximately 6 000 residents are still missing. Othman Abduljalil, Health Minister of Libya’s eastern administration, confirmed in an interview with Libya’s Almasar TV. 

The devastating chain of events began with the collapse of dams and subsequent flooding in Libya, particularly in the city of Derna. The floodwaters raced through the city, annihilating everything in their wake, including homes, agricultural land and livestock. Three bridges have been destroyed and water carried away entire neighbourhoods, eventually depositing them into the sea, said Ahmed Mismari, spokesperson for the Libya National Army. According to statistics, the most lethal flood in North Africa since 1990 was the one that purportedly claimed 3 000 lives in Algeria in 1927. Although the exact number of fatalities remains unverified, this flood has the potential to be the deadliest one witnessed in North Africa.


Libya: A failed state

Libya has become split and exposed to risks. Corruption has surged to extreme levels, with some people getting incredibly rich while the country suffers. Without a working government, institutions, or essential services, Libya is in chaos and can’t effectively handle a crisis this big. The lack of a united government has let corruption and disorder grow, making it nearly impossible to rebuild the nation. Ashur Shamis, Libyan journalist based in the United Kingdom, estimated that it will take weeks before the government gets into Derna and into the heart of the problem. By then, many more would have unnecessarily suffered and many more lives would be lost.

For Shamis, Libya began its road to becoming a failed state after Gaddafi was ousted in 2011. While his ousting was celebrated by those who took part in the Arab Spring, it quickly led to instability within the nation.

“Getting rid of Gaddafi was the biggest success of that uprising. Once that had happened, Libya was allowed to be completely free. A population which has been suppressed for 40 years is given freedom and that is something new to the Libyans. Everything was free. People began to accumulate anything they could to form their own power bases. Various power points erupted in the country and there were clashes between them … Libya has been divided. In other words, it was cut up into pieces and was taken over by these armed groups in the country. In addition to that, there was another group or other groups who were after money and they accumulated money in any way they could.”


The causes of the catastrophic flood

The relentless downpour that has engulfed numerous cities in northeastern Libya is a grim consequence of an extraordinarily powerful low-pressure system. This system initially unleashed catastrophic floods in Greece just a week ago before sweeping into the Mediterranean and ultimately morphing into a monstrous, tropical-like cyclone called a medicane.

Adding to this dire scenario, global ocean temperatures are soaring to unprecedented heights. The Mediterranean’s temperature remains unnervingly elevated, which scientists say has served as the combustible fuel for this tempest’s unrelenting, torrential onslaught.

When you combine such a deadly storm with dams that have been neglected a perfect storm of calamity unfolds before our eyes. The tragic consequence is the loss of thousands of lives, leaving families torn apart and communities shattered, said Sharmis. 

“[The] first dam, which was built very flimsily, had no maintenance. There was no infrastructure in that dam. It’s a huge dam which was pushed by the water and it was taken into the sea. On its way it burst two more dams also doing the same job but have no ability, have no structure, have no ability to stand this pressure. The water was very thick and very substantial. It swept everything on its way. Houses, farms, animals, people, everything. It seems about 10 000 people are missing. Most of them have probably been thrown into the sea with the sand and the mud and the various other things that were swept over by the water.” 

Libya’s infrastructure, including the dams that burst, suffered from decades of neglect. Poor maintenance and substandard construction left these critical structures vulnerable. Shamis believes that if Libya was not a failed state, if power was held by one person, the disaster would have been mitigated. 

“We could have dealt with whatever happened much better and saved some lives but we have no authority and we have no facilities.”


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A city in ruins

Derna, once a picturesque city on the southern Mediterranean, now lies in ruins. The torrent of water that descended from the mountains swept away the city’s beauty and vitality. The cityscape transformed into a scene of desolation. The catastrophe is so severe that the very essence of Derna seems to have been “completely evaporated”, leaving behind a haunting emptiness.

“It’s not possible to help them [the people of Derna] because there’s no roads, no access points to the city. The tragedy is still there and the people who are in Derna have nothing to to save them. They have very little to enable them to face this tragedy.” 



Life for survivors after the catastrophe

For the survivors, life has become a struggle for survival, with little guidance or support from the governing authorities. This is due to Libya being stuck in political chaos ever since long-serving ruler Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed in 2011. Since then, the oil rich nation effectively split with an interim, internationally recognised government, Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Abdulhamid Dbeibeh,operating from the capital, Tripoli, Northwest Libya. While commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), support the eastern-based parliament led by Osama Hamad. 

Derna falls under the control of the LNA and Hamad. Even though this is the case, the GNU has sent a plane with 14 tonnes of medical supplies, body bags and more than 80 doctors and paramedics. According to Sharmis, Libya is a failed state because of the current political climate.

“The so-called governing authorities of Derna or Benghazi, they are helpless. Libya has been in a terrible situation even before this, long before this. It has no government structure. It’s a failed state in other words. This is the worst time that Derna or any part of Libya can be hit by something like this. Unfortunately this is the situation at the moment. There is no government, no authorities, no institutions or services that can help these people. Very rudimentary equipment and very rudimentary plans on how to save them.” 


Other areas impacted and international help 

Currently, the storm looks to be one of the deadliest on record for North Africa. The floods have affected several cities, including Al-Bayda, Al-Marj, Tobruk, Takenis, Al-Bayada, and Battah, as well as the eastern coast all the way to Benghazi. Tens of thousands of military personnel have been deployed, but many of the flood-stricken regions are still inaccessible to emergency workers.

Several countries and human rights groups have come to Libya’s aid. Turkish aircraft delivering humanitarian aid have touched down in Libya, as confirmed by Turkey’s Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) on Tuesday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the nation would dispatch 168 search and rescue teams along with humanitarian aid to Benghazi, as reported by the state-run news agency Anadolu Agency on the same day. Italy is also sending a civil defense team to assist with rescue operations, as announced by the country’s Civil Protection Department on Tuesday.

The US Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, revealed that its special envoy, Ambassador Richard Norland, had officially declared a humanitarian need. This declaration “will enable the initial funding that the United States will provide to support relief efforts in Libya. We are working in conjunction with UN partners and Libyan authorities to determine the most effective way to target official US assistance,” as posted on Twitter.

President Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates has instructed the dispatch of aid and search and rescue teams, while offering condolences to those affected by the catastrophe, as reported by the state news agency.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has sent a military delegation, led by Egypt’s Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff, Osama Askar, who arrived in Libya on Tuesday to coordinate the provision of logistical and humanitarian assistance.

According to CNN, general Haftar said eastern officials were currently assessing damage caused by the floods so roads could be reconstructed and electricity restored to help rescue efforts.


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