Thousands have been killed after dams burst during a storm in Libya. Is this the result of government failure or climate change?
Torrential rains brought on by Storm Daniel have unleashed catastrophe in the city of Derna in eastern Libya.
At least 11,000 people have died and 10,000 are missing after the floodwaters burst two dams and then rushed down onto the city.
Climate change is supercharging storms. The surface waters of the Mediterranean are two to three degrees warmer than usual, which would have intensified Storm Daniel. In a single day, sixteen inches of rain fell on the area around Derna – which would normally have had a fraction of an inch of rain in the whole month of September.
The changing climate meant the area around the dams was drier too, with less vegetation to hold soil in place and slow the flow of water. But this wasn’t just a natural disaster.
Twelve years after a NATO-backed uprising in which rebels overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is divided between two weak governments. An internationally recognised one in the west, and a regime run by military commander Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east, including the area around Derna.
Ciaran Donnelly, head of crisis response at the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organisation, said: “In Libya you have over a decade of conflict and political turmoil, which has inevitably resulted in a lack of attention paid to the maintenance of public infrastructure… but also things like early warning systems, civil protection services that in other countries might have been able to help people evacuate earlier in a more orderly way.”
In 1998, a Libyan government study revealed cracks in the dams – which had been built in the 1970s – but work to repair them only got underway in 2010. Four months later, the uprising against Gaddafi began and work on the dam was abandoned.
According to a 2021 report by Libyan state auditors, more than $2m was set aside for maintenance of the dams but the money was never spent.
But the failure to maintain the dams wasn’t the only reason so many people died. Derna’s mayor gave an order for the city to be evacuated. It was overruled by General Haftar. Instead, people received text messages advising them to stay in their homes.
Derna is a warning from the future. In a world where climate and weather-related disasters are becoming more frequent, early and effective action from governments is needed to save lives. But that’s often exactly what’s missing.