On September 10, climate change met Libya’s failing state. The result was thousands of dead and missing in the eastern city of Derna.
The disaster mirrored the country’s endemic problems but also heralded the risks ahead.
With “hurricane-like characteristics,” Storm Daniel, which crashed ashore on Libya’s coast, was the latest in a trend of increasingly severe Mediterranean storms.
But there was more than a change of weather patterns behind the disaster. There was chronic neglect and mismanagement.
Libya as a whole was ill-equipped to properly manage any major natural catastrophe. Most safeguards which could have prevented or alleviated the flooding were lacking.
Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation said, “the meteorological service in Libya hasn’t been functioning, thanks to the chaotic situation of the administration.”
Military and civilian authorities in Libya’s east issued instructions to inhabitants to evacuate Derna ahead of Storm Daniel. Confusingly, they also asked the population to stay put.
No warnings were issued from the authorities for a possible collapse of the two clay dams built in the 1970’s by a Yugoslav company. The water resources ministry even assured residents, “the dams are in good condition and things are under control.” It should have known better.
A 2022 Sebha university research paper had called for “immediate measures” to ensure maintenance of the dams. The state audit office in Tripoli acknowledged the dams had not been maintained despite the allocation of funds for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.
There were signs of divisions and jockeying for power amid the disaster despite self-serving displays of unity, in a country deeply split between two main political camps since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi.
The head of the Presidential Council Mohammed Menfi infuriated Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which holds sway over eastern Libya, when he declared that Libya “needs unified institutions to oversee the crisis.”
Reuters quoted an “humanitarian source” as saying that authorities in the east have blocked aid coming through the Tripoli government. Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeiba sparked widespread concern when he told a press conference: “There were multiple offers of help and we will only accept aid that is necessary.”
But overall, the two rival camps put their disputes on hold as they watched volunteers from all parts of the country join forces to help the victims.
East and west rulers seem to have banded together out of wariness of bottom-up pressures to hold politicians accountable.
Under duress, both sides called for a probe as they sought to deflect blame and delay any real reckoning.
But according to sources in Libya, nothing short of an international investigation could get to the bottom of the catastrophe, especially given that recent measures by Dbeibah have curtailed the work of civil society organisations.
But many Libyans have already drawn their own conclusions. The growing anger at the authorities has ignited protests this week in Derna and a furious reaction on social media. Libyan writer Salem Hendawi wrote on Facebook: “The party responsible for the wholesale deaths of families is not the hurricane but governments which must be held accountable for the murder of thousands of people.”
Libyans know that their country’s politicians could not have cared less about climate change nor building a modern infrastructure network in the country.
The roots of institutional failure go back to the Gadhafi era when state institutions were dismantled and competence replaced by political subservience.
Since 2011, members of the splintered political class focused on bolstering their support bases by funding armed militias and seeking foreign backers to maintain their hold on power.
Eastern and western parts of the country were consumed by intermittent conflict, until a precarious ceasefire in 2020. The security situation was made worse by the encroachment of extremist groups including ISIS, which occupied Derna until the group’s demise in 2019.
The spectre of partition, rather than the prospect of integrated development or functional institutions, hovered over the country. Revenues from Libya’s vast oil resources were more a bounty to be doled out to political factions and armed militias than state resources allocated to ensure sustainable growth and a modernised infrastructure.
While elections were repeatedly blocked, the country’s wealth fuelled corruption. Even in the middle of the current disaster there are fears relief funds could be “syphoned off.”
Foreign powers, which never stopped their turf wars, continued to be part of Libya’s problems. After its 2011 military intervention in Libya, the West has viewed the country through the prism of either security or oil.
The quest for influence also motivated regional powers. Storm Daniel has sparked competition between Egypt, the traditional backer of Haftar, on the one hand, and Turkey, Tripoli’s supporter, on the other.
Yehia Kedouani, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s defence and national security commission told Al Arab newspaper: “Turkey still has designs in Libya” and Cairo’s “massive humanitarian aid” aims to “close any loophole that could be exploited by Ankara.”
If there is a silver-lining in this tragic story it is that it has brought Libyans from all regions of the country together.
It has also reinforced the conviction of many that their country is unlikely to rise above its woes with the same political system in place.
At the same time, there is a sense of foreboding that the two rival camps, both feeling threatened by the growing anger toward them, could continue to pause their differences while cementing their hold on power.
That could herald a new catastrophe in Libya, far beyond what Storm Daniel has wrought.
The author is an editor at Arab Weekly and was formerly the communications minister in the Ben Ali regime. This article originally was published in the same publication.