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Libya flooding: Land mines pose new threat, death toll rises

September 18, 2023

Many people in Libya have been left without fresh drinking water since the floods contaminated sources, but there's a new danger if they travel to get water: land mines displaced by strong currents.

A man sits with his face in the palms of his hands, in front of his destroyed buiilding, in Derna, on September 16, after floods washed away entire families in the coastal city
The floods reveal the powerful nature of water, with floods contaminating drinking sourcesImage: Ahmed Gaber/Xinhua/IMAGO

Residents who survived the devastating flooding in the eastern coastal Libyan city of Derna were faced with the threat of displaced land mines in surrounding areas on Sunday.

Residents said they had to think whether to wade through areas where land mines were displaced by raging torrents that swept away entire families in the wake of this week's floods.

Many had to travel through the areas because they didn't have fresh water in their homes as the flooding contaminated local water sources. On Saturday, a local official reported at least 150 cases of diarrhea.

"Under all circumstances in Derna, it is not allowed to use ordinary drinking water because its contamination percentage is very high," Director of Libya's National Centre for Disease Control Haider al-Sayeh said in a video statement. 

Reuters news agency reported that flooding is believed to have affected around a quarter of all buildings in Derna, with at least 891 buildings having been completely destroyed and 398 submerged in mud.

Libya counts losses as search for missing continues

Death toll in the thousands

Rescue efforts are ongoing to search for survivors in the rubble after a devastating storm broke two dams in Derna on Sunday.

The death toll is in the thousands, with aid groups citing different numbers. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said at least 11,300 people had died so far in the floods and over 10,000 were missing in Derna.

Those numbers have been disputed by authorities with the Libyan Red Crescent, and it is not exactly clear how many people lost their lives in the floods, given the scale of destruction and the political situation in the country.

The oil-rich North African nation has been in turmoil since longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled in 2011. The country is divided between rival administrations in the east and west and the administrations have no record of successful cooperation.

A number of countries, including Egypt, Germany, Israel, and Russia, have sent aid, but delivering them has also been hampered given the widespread destruction of roads.

Rescue teams search for survivors in the port city of Derna, eastern Libya
Rescue teams search for survivors in the port city of Derna, eastern LibyaImage: Hamza Turkia/Xinhua/IMAGO

UN agencies have repeatedly pointed to concerns of shortages of basic needs among residents and have warned about the risk of a disease outbreak.

The UN has said that at least 1,000 people have been buried so far. In Derna, bodies wrapped in bags have piled up in the streets as authorities race to bury them.

Most of the deaths could have been avoided if authorities had better warning systems in place, the United Nations' weather agency said earlier this week.

Greek rescue workers killed

Later on Sunday, it was announced that four Greek rescue workers dispatched to Libya following were killed in a road collision Sunday, Tripoli's health minister said.

Rescue workers from Greece, Turkey, Egypt and other countries have flocked to the port city to offer help.

On Sunday, a bus carrying 19 Greek rescue workers had a head on collision with a vehicle carrying five Libyan nationals on the road between the cities of Benghazi and Derna, health minister Othman Abduljaleel said. Three Libyans in the oncoming vehicle were also killed.

Seven of the surviving Greek rescue workers were in a critical condition in the hospital, the minister said.

Investigation into dam burst

Officials have opened an investigation into the collapse of two dams that unleashed a vast torrent of water into Derna. 

Minister Osama Hammad, who was appointed by the House of Representatives to lead the investigation, said the probe would be looking into how money earmarked for maintenance of the dams was mishandled.

Questions have also arisen over reports of two cracks in one of the dams that had reportedly been known about since as far back as 1998.

ab, rm, jsi/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)