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Floods in Libya: Civil war compounds devastation

September 13, 2023

Climate change is partly responsible for the floods that have devastated Libya, but the legacy of civil war, political chaos and corruption have exacerbated the impact. Observers say aid is desperately needed.

A man walks through the debris, after a powerful storm and heavy rainfall hit Libya
Thousands have died, and thousands are still missing, after the floods in DernaImage: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/REUTERS

Though numbers remain unclear, the full extent of the disaster caused by recent floods in northeastern Libya is becoming increasingly apparent. Local media have quoted a government spokesperson as saying that more than 5,200 people died in the port city of Derna, which has a population of 90,000 to 100,000.

"The death toll is huge, and thousands are reported missing," said Tamer Ramadan, Libya envoy for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The International Organization for Migration has stated that at least 30,000 people were displaced in Derna alone.

Located 300 kilometers (about 185 miles) east of Libya's second-most populous city, Benghazi, Derna is split by a riverbed that is usually dry in summer. Heavy rainfall turned it into a raging torrent that swept away several major bridges, and many of the high-rise buildings on the riverbanks collapsed.

"The situation is very catastrophic," said Hichem Chkiut, the aviation minister of the government that controls the country's east. "There are bodies everywhere, in the sea, in the valleys, under buildings," he deplored, warning that the final death toll would be "very, very high."

"I am not exaggerating when I say that 25% of the city is gone," he said.

'Agonizing' wait to learn of relatives' fates

One resident of Derna told the Reuters news agency he had already lost 30 members of his family. Like thousands of others, he did not know whether his remaining loved ones were dead or alive, a situation that is "agonizing," said Thomas Claes, the head of the Libya office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is located in Tunisia. He added that people were still having difficulty contacting relatives.

Muddy waters and damaged high-rise buildings
In Derna, a riverbed that is usually dry turned into a raging torrentImage: AFP/Getty Images

"I'm hearing from quite a number of people here, who have had no contact with their relatives and friends for two or three days," said Claes. "This is also because the telephone network has collapsed. So, they don't know how they are, or if they are even alive."

But while some wait and hope, others have confronted the reality of life without family and friends. 

"I am looking for images of survivors. I can no longer stand seeing pictures and names of the dead," Ghaith Shenneb, who is originally from Derna, told the French Le Figaro daily, saying he had not slept since Monday. He said he had recognized a former teacher, a childhood friend, a family he was friends with and neighbors. "They're all dead." 

Climate change caused floods, but war magnified impact

The floods were very likely caused by climate change, German meteorologist Mojib Latif told public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk on Wednesday. He said that "very, very hot" temperatures in the Mediterranean had encountered cold air from the north.

But the damage was particularly devastating, said Asma Khalifa of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, because Derna had already suffered disproportionately from the civil war, which descended on the country when longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011. The conflict escalated as rival armed groups and militias battled for power and international parties became increasingly involved.

Khalifa told DW the situation had been particularly difficult for the city because it was controlled by the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) terror group in 2013 and 2014.

"When the Libyan Arab armed forces tried to liberate it, it was under blockade for two years," she said. "Its infrastructure is weak, even more fragile than in the other cities in the country."

Division of country poses structural problem

Libya is currently controlled by two rival governments. One, which enjoys international recognition, is based in the capital, Tripoli. The other operates from the east, where the devastating floods occurred.

"The division created by the war is a huge structural issue," Khalifa said, adding that it has weakened the institutions of both sides "and aided mass corruption and abuse of public funds," contributing massively to the failure of infrastructure, dams and roads.

"It is the main reason for the chaotic response to the crisis," she said.

Political tensions complicate Libya's rescue efforts

Claes from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation said there were convincing reports that the dams in and around Derna had not been regularly inspected and maintained. "We don't know for sure yet, but apparently they were in poor condition. Of course, this is related to the fact that state structures are generally very weak across Libya, but especially in the east," he said.

The pan-Arab Al Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, published in London, wrote that the collapse of two dams and the floods were not due to natural factors alone. It said that structural defects and neglect were also to blame.

Rival governments failed in initial response

There has also been criticism of the initial response to the floods.

"There are horrific reports now saying that there were attempts to try to call for an evacuation," said Khalifa. "But the military forces in Libya, both in the east and the west, actually established curfews and told citizens to remain at home."

It is difficult to verify such reports in an unstable, fragmented country where political action is not transparent.

Claes said both governments had been rather passive at first. "The government in Tripoli tried to calm the population. It initially sent out a message that the situation was not so bad, and it was a matter of sticking together," he said.

The two governments have since taken action and are providing emergency aid. Rescue services and technicians who can repair the electricity grid have also been sent to the region.

Airplane and aid arrive at airport in Tripoli
Aid has started to trickle in from neighboring countriesImage: Hamza Turkia/Xinhua/picture alliance

International aid 'desperately needed'

Numerous countries have offered their assistance, and the first rescue workers from Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have already arrived in Libya. The United Nations has also allocated $10 million (roughly €9.3 million) to support the victims of the floods, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Wednesday.

Help is "desperately needed," said Khalifa. "There needs to be air assistance and evacuation and rescue capabilities, which Libya does not have. [From] all neighboring countries, and Libya is not very far from Europe."

This article was originally written in German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East