The cost of rebuilding Libya to its old self may have gone up by several billions of dollars after a devastating flood swept through its land, killing thousands and destroying homes of others.
By Friday, the death toll was still climbing with some local estimates putting the number at 4,000 by close of Thursday, and over 10,000 people still missing. It signals the danger of having a decade-long political crisis unresolved.
The UN World Metrological Organization (WMO) on Thursday spoke of the country’s poor emergency warning systems and slow response, potentially left underdeveloped for the more than 10 years the country has been without a stable government.
“The fragmentation of the country’s disaster management and disaster response mechanisms, as well as deteriorating infrastructure, exacerbated the enormity of the challenges. The political situation is a driver of risk, as we are seeing in many countries currently,” said Prof Petteri Taalas, the WMO Secretary-General in a statement on Thursday.
“The National Meteorological Centre faces major gaps in its observing systems. Its IT systems are not functioning well and there are chronic staff shortages. The National Meteorological Centre is trying to function, but its ability to do so is limited. The entire chain of disaster management and governance is disrupted.”
The tragedy, he argued, highlights “the philosophy behind the Early Warnings for All initiative to improve the accuracy and availability of impact-based forecasts, and to ensure that they reach everyone and lead to action.”
Libya’s National Meteorological Centre had actually warned residents of Derna in eastern Libya of extreme and unprecedented rainfall levels (414.1 mm in 24 hours in one station) which caused the heavy floods and the collapse of the dams. Authorities did not respond to the issue of possible dam breaks, which came to pass.
But while climate change may have played a role in Libya’s devastating floods, the country’s political crisis clearly contributed and has worsened the impact on the masses, say experts and humanitarian organisations.
The North African nation is currently run by two rival governments. One is headed by Interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah of the UN-backed Government of National Unity in Tripoli, west of the country. And the second, which has the backing of Russia, operates from the oil-rich eastern region, where the floods occurred. It is headed by Prime Minister Osama Hamad, but it is widely believed that Libyan National Army General Khalifa Haftar wields the real power there. Haftar is backed by neighbouring Egypt which has offered an ‘air bridge’ to support those hurt in the floods.
Derna, the epicentre of the disaster that has ravaged the North African nation, is one of the most affected by the protracted civil unrests that began with the overthrow and killing of former strongman Col Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The Mediterranean port city has a population of between 90,000 and 100,000.
The conflict has escalated as rival armed groups, including local militias, scramble for control.
Between 2013 and 2014, Derna was controlled by the terrorist group, Islamic State (IS). And for about two years after, it was under blockade due to intense fighting by the rival sides, causing a weakening of its infrastructure. Corruption and abuse of public funds also contributed to the failure of infrastructure like dams and roads.
This incident which occurred on Monday, September 11, after the Mediterranean storm Daniel struck a day earlier, has been described as Africa’s deadliest storm on record.
Storm Daniel also hit Greece, Türkiye and Bulgaria.
But Libya was the hardest hit, with Derna as its epicentre, even though several other coastal towns in the war-torn country, including Benghazi, were also hit.
Rescue workers are still searching for survivors and bodies. Volunteers have been combing streets, wrecked buildings and even the sea to look for bodies.
Humanitarian responders say the political unrest and lack of proper infrastructure has led to a disjointed response to the disaster, although that seems to be changing.
Figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) indicate that over 5,000 people had died, with at least 30,000 displaced. Over 10,000 are said to be missing.
The decade-long war has affected Libya’s infrastructure generally, but especially so in the east of the country. Dams were reportedly in bad shape, but due to the war there were no time or resources to monitor or repair them.
“A major challenge for humanitarian action is access to the flood-hit areas, as roads have been seriously degraded or destroyed,” said the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in a statement. It said that it was also evaluating the risk posed by unexploded ordnance and abandoned munition stores, an additional challenge to residents, emergency responders and authorities now working to alleviate the suffering.
Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, Mayor of Derna, said the death toll is likely to reach 20,000, given the extent of the destruction of the city.
Under UN guidance, elections were initially planned to be held at the end of 2021. But just days to the polls, the authorities suddenly dissolved the electoral body, due to disagreements over the electoral framework. Among the sources of the disagreements are eligibility of the candidates, election laws, and the powers of both the parliament and president.
New developments emerging, however, indicate a plan by US and France to install a new and unified government, which could lead to the departure of Mr Dbeibah.