It has now been almost a week since the waters of the Wadi Derna river in Libya’s eastern region crashed through the dam destroying the coastal city of Derna and taking with it thousands of lives. The Libyan Red Crescent put the death toll at more than 11,000 people, with nearly 20,000 still missing, the highest estimate yet from an official source.
Swollen with unheard-of rainfall, entire neighbourhoods have been left in ruins. Dozens of bodies continue to be washed up along the coast.
Liz Stephens, a professor in climate risks and resilience at the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, said that the dam’s collapse had been catastrophic. “While Storm Daniel brought exceptional rainfall to eastern Libya, the tragic loss of life will have been largely due to the failure of dams, with a sudden release of water providing little time to reach safety, and the entrained debris adding to the violent force of the floodwaters.”
In the midst of a tragedy of such epic proportions there is a need to hold people accountable. Libya’s attorney general has been asked by senior politicians to launch an urgent inquiry into the disaster, including into allegations that local officials imposed a curfew on the night Storm Daniel struck.
Even without the inquiry, there is enough evidence to suggest that the collapse of the dams and the catastrophic loss of life was a result of decades of neglect that left the city ill-prepared for the unprecedented natural disasters caused by the climate crisis.
The two dams, Derna and Mansour, were built between 1973 and 1977 by a Yugoslav construction company. A research paper published in November 2022 warned that the dams needed urgent attention and routine maintenance to prevent disastrous consequences.
According to a 2021 report by Libyan state auditors, more than $2.3 million allocated for maintaining the two dams was never used, which was considered a case of government negligence. The country’s separate, chaotic, and warring regimes which emerged after the murder of Gaddafi have left critical infrastructure, including the dams, in a state of neglect.
However, it is not as simple as laying this tragedy at the door of climate change or as the responsibility of the inefficient and warring governments now governing Libya. An article in The Washington Post on September 14, was clear. This catastrophe was avoidable and it was everyone’s fault.
Gaddafi was certainly not perfect. An article in Al Jazeera in 2011, entitled “Libya’s Falling Tyrant” pulled no punches: “He is now reaping what he has sown; terror, nepotism, tribal politics and an abuse of power.” America and its allies were always threatened by him; the country, with its oil-rich reserves, didn’t need their paternalistic support. He felt free to run the country using his own form of Islamist socialism. He was regularly accused of international acts of terrorism for which he paid dearly in the form of direct air attacks. The first was by the USA as early as 1986 under Reagan. This resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including Gaddafi’s own children and grandchildren.
Despite this, Libya under Gaddafi was the most prosperous and one of the most stable countries in Africa. It had free health care and education, the right for all citizens to a home, subsidised electricity, water and petrol. It had the lowest infant mortality and highest levels of life expectancy, along with the highest levels of literacy on the continent. He was also capable of managing the various warring groups.
It was the uprising, or the Arab Spring, in 2011 that sealed his fate. NATO launched the war in Libya in February 2011, claiming that only its intervention could keep Gaddafi from killing protesters in eastern Libya, the same region now devastated by floods.
This was the start of the destruction of Libya, and it spiralled into chaos almost immediately, laying the foundations for the latest humanitarian disaster.
In 2016, an official report by the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee, in a document entitled “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options,” said what many had suspected, that the intervention of British, French, and American armed forces into Libya in March 2011 was “not informed by accurate intelligence.”
It went on to say that the action, which was ostensibly to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s government, had “drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change,” the result of which was “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and intertribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of [weapons] across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.”
James Cleverly was asked by a BBC World Service reporter on 17th September whether he felt any responsibility for the tens of thousands of flood victims in Libya. He paused ever so slightly before saying “NATO and other countries had no choice but to intervene in 2011. The Libyan people needed saving from Gaddafi.”
Thirteen years later, Libya has lost tens of thousands of innocent people, either as a result of the conflict or from the most recent disaster where whole communities have been washed away. At the same time, over 400,000 people have been displaced since the NATO intervention. Libya has been in crisis for the whole of this period. It would seem to be the very antithesis of having been “saved”.