Floods cause disaster in Libya

Al-Ahram Weekly , Tuesday 12 Sep 2023

Libya is asking for international assistance in the wake of Storm Daniel that has left thousands dead or missing in the east of the country

Floods  cause disaster  in Libya


Thousands of people are feared dead in Libya after entire neighbourhoods in the northeastern areas of the country were swept by massive floods early this week. The floods caused by the Mediterranean Storm Daniel destroyed two dams in the coastal city of Derna, which is home to 100,000 people.

Health officials now fear that up to 10,000 people have gone missing in the city, which has been declared a disaster zone. Local officials have been sending pleas for rescue missions to provide a humanitarian air bridge, air lift survivors, and evacuate the flooded areas.

According to local reports, the force of the floods that led to the dams’ collapse destroyed whole streets, swallowing up thousands of people. Many are feared to have been swept out to sea where they drowned.

In the words of Civil Aviation Minister in the eastern Libyan Government Hisham Abu Shikwat, “one quarter of Derna has completely disappeared from the face of the earth.”

Storm Daniel, which also struck Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria last week, killed a total of 14 people in these countries, demonstrating a live example of the gap between the North and the Global South in addressing the impacts of climate change.

Osama Ali, a spokesman for the Libyan Ambulance and Emergency Authority, told the news channel Aljazeera on Tuesday that “every minute that passes without air support and rescue efforts costs lives.”

He said that the Derna dams, which are 11 to 12 years old, might not have received adequate maintenance by the local authorities, possibly leading to their collapse. Because the coastal area is vulnerable to floods, he said, “it’s clear that there should have been other solutions to ease the pressure of extreme floods on the dams.”

In another interview with the US channel CNN, Ali said that after the dams collapsed, all of the water behind them headed to an area near Derna, which is in a mountainous coastal area. Homes in valleys were washed away by strong muddy currents carrying vehicles and debris. Phone lines in the city are also down, complicating rescue efforts, with workers unable to enter it due to the heavy destruction.

Ali said the authorities had not anticipated the scale of the disaster.

“The weather conditions were not studied well, the seawater levels and rainfall [were not studied], nor were the wind speeds. There was no evacuation of families that could be in the path of the storm and in the valleys.”

Rescue efforts have been difficult and have been carried out mostly by volunteers. The Libyan Red Crescent said two of its volunteers were killed during rescue efforts in Derna on Monday.

A report by the Associated Press on Tuesday described scenes of chaos when floods hit the centre of Derna. Residents heard loud explosions at night and realised that the dams outside the city had collapsed, sending a wall of water that “erased everything in its path,” said Ahmed Abdalla, a Derna resident.

Footage released overnight showed dozens of bodies on the ground covered by blankets or sheets in a hospital yard in Derna. The storm also hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the town of Bayda, where about 50 people were reported dead.

The Medical Centre of Bayda, the main hospital, was flooded, and patients had to be evacuated, according to footage shared on Facebook.

Other towns that suffered from the storm included Susa, Marj, and Shahatt, according to the eastern Libyan Government. Hundreds of families were displaced and took shelter in schools and other government buildings in the city of Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya.

Malak Altaeb, a Libyan researcher focusing on the environment, said the disaster left by Storm Daniel was “the responsibility of everyone in power in Libya.”

“The fact that it was known that the storm would hit Libya after Greece but that no evacuation plans or any form of mitigation was put in place says so much. People were simply left to die,” she wrote on Twitter.

Libyan Health Minister Othman Abduljaleel said the city was inaccessible and described the situation as catastrophic. “Bodies are still lying on the ground in many parts [of the city]. Hospitals are filled with bodies. And there are areas we have yet to reach,” he said.

Tamer Ramadan, head of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) delegation in Libya, told the German network Deutsche Welle that Libya is experiencing a “large-scale disaster” that “goes beyond the abilities of the Libyan government and the national society” to deal with it.

Referring to Friday’s devastating earthquake in neighbouring Morocco, Ramadan said the situation in Libya was “as devastating as the situation in Morocco”.

Libya, a country of six million people, has been split between warring factions since 2014 following the 2011 uprising against former leader Moammar Gaddafi.

“The size of the losses could have been avoided if those in authority had prioritised the well-being of people and addressed climate change impacts instead of spending the country’s money on failed agreements and conflict,” Altaeb, the Libyan researcher on the environment, wrote on Twitter.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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