The nation is facing an unprecedented tragedy that has claimed at least 5,300 lives. The damage, however, was caused not by a storm, but a civil war made worse by geopolitical rivalry. But no one really knew or, perhaps, cared until the death toll became too high to ignore.
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Anannya Parekh
Wait, what happened in Libya?
On Sunday night, the country was hit by Storm Daniel that has devastated great swathes of the Mediterranean—including Italy, Spain and Turkey. At least 5,300 people are dead and almost 10,000 are missing. And 30,000 have lost their homes. The actual death toll, however, is feared to be a lot higher.
The floods: Most of the flooding occurred in the east—which received extreme rainfall in a very short period of time. For example: the city of Al-Bayda—which usually receives about 12.7 mm of rain in September—was deluged by more than 414.4 mm on Sunday.
The devastation of Derna: But most of the deaths occurred in a single town: Derna—which received 150 mm of rainfall over two days. The floods were not a result of the rain, however, but two small dams upstream from the town of 100,000 people. One dam broke and swept the other one away—with waves as high as 7 metres (23 feet). A quarter of Derna simply disappeared. This is what the town looked like after the floods:
Even more telling are these ‘before’ and ‘after’ satellite photos:
Counting deaths: Derna is the big reason why there is great uncertainty about the death toll. Aid and rescue workers are still collecting bodies: “Bodies are everywhere, inside houses, in the streets, at sea. Wherever you go, you find dead men, women, and children. Entire families were lost.” And many were swept out to sea. With thousands still missing, authorities fear the final count will be much, much higher. Derna’s mayor puts it at 20,000. The Guardian vid below reveals the enormity of this tragedy:
Quote to note: Those bodies have to be recovered quickly to avoid further tragedy, as the mayor warned: “We actually need teams specialised in recovering bodies. I fear that the city will be infected with an epidemic due to the large number of bodies under the rubble and in the water.”
Ok, so the dams broke because of the storm?
Yes and no. The storm was catastrophic due to three reasons.
Climate change: As usual, global warming has triggered extreme weather events. Storm Daniel was a phenomenon known as a ‘medicane’—a “rare, destructive, subtropical monster”:
Medicanes are the smaller siblings of the hurricanes and typhoons that barrage coastal locations around the world… While medicanes are rare, their destructive power can be immense—especially when they hit countries ill-equipped to cope with such ferocious weather events. These storms rotate like regular hurricanes and have the same distinct “eye” feature. And, like hurricanes, they can cause significant damage when they make landfall.
And as the surfaces of the sea heat up, we will get more powerful hurricanes, typhoons—and, yes, medicanes. As storms travel over warmer waters, they gather more water vapour and strength.
Criminal neglect: Most of the infrastructure in Derna dates back to the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. One of the dams, for example, was built in the 1970s by a Yugoslav company. After Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, the town has been caught in the crossfire of a civil war (more on that below). And it has been progressively falling apart ever since:
When Storm Daniel made landfall, Derna… did not have a single, official hospital, Dr Shennib said. Instead, a five-bedroom villa had been serving as a makeshift hospital. "What we're seeing is really sad because yes we know that there are natural disasters, but there is a huge component of human negligence... there is an incredible amount of self-destruction that's happening in Libya," he said.
Civil war: Libya was ruled by Gaddafi—until he was toppled during the Arab Spring by US-supported rebels in 2011. Attempts to transition to a democracy failed over the next three years. And in 2014, the country was once again torn apart by a civil war. The battle between the two sides—with Islamic militants thrown into the mix—lasted until 2020.
Since then, the country has settled into a stalemate—divided between two governments. Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah controls the western side of the country—leading a UN-backed government in Tripoli. The eastern side is ruled by the so-called House of Representatives—which has a de facto PM but is actually led by Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army. You can see the divide in the BBC map below:
Point to note: Foreign intervention has not helped matters. Haftar is backed by Egypt, Russia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, while Dbeibah has the support of Turkey, Qatar and Italy. The UN describes the deaths caused by the civil war as “incalculable.”
The fallout for Derna: The town was first occupied by Islamic State militants and then taken over by Haftar’s forces. The general controls the oil-rich parts of Libya. He certainly has money to maintain the infrastructure—but has chosen not to:
One reason that so much of Derna’s core has collapsed may also be due to the Libyan National Army’s plundering of public infrastructure for scrap metal and other potential sources of revenue… That may help explain the unbelievable scale of collapse. “They’ve rotted that city from the inside out,” [founder of Libyan think tank Sadeq Institute, Anas] El Gomati told me. “I can’t get my head around the negligence.”
In fact, Libya had adequate warning of the storm—since it had already hit Greece. But when Derna’s mayor asked for help, Haftar just ignored it. His government did not even issue an evacuation order
Also this: The civil war has also made it very difficult to send aid to Derna. Most of the aid is sent to the UN-backed government in Tripoli—but has to get permission from Haftar to reach the flood victims in the east.