The Guardian view on Libya’s floods: humans, not just nature, caused this disaster

15 09 2023 | 15:09Newsroom / THE GUARDIAN

Much of the eastern city of Derna has disappeared. The lethal failures of the country’s authorities must bear much of the blame

The devastation wreaked by floods in eastern Libya is nothing less than apocalyptic. In Derna, where two dams burst after torrential rains, a wall of water deluged the city and sliced out the land from beneath its inhabitants. Entire neighbourhoods were swept into the sea, which is now dumping bodies along the shore. More than 6,000 have died there, and 10,000 people are said to be missing, but because entire families were washed away, there may be no survivors to report some losses. With other towns and settlements inundated, too, tens of thousands are displaced.

The horror and despair of Libyans is matched by their fury at the rival governments that have split the country and pursued power and profit while ignoring the people’s needs. Storm Daniel is a natural disaster, wrote Elham Saudi, the director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, but the ensuing catastrophe “is manmade: corruption; lack of infrastructure; impunity; shutting down frontliners in civil society … Be angry at a system that has enabled this tragedy.”

It is too soon to say whether, or how far, Storm Daniel’s terrifying impact is related to the climate crisis. But it is clear that global heating is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including flooding. In the last fortnight alone, Hong Kong has seen its heaviest rainfall since records began in 1884, with metro stations inundated, and in Greece, torrential rain triggered landslides and infrastructure collapse. These scenes, like the summer’s extreme rainfalls in China, the US and Spain among others, are a warning of what awaits many more of us, and highlight the need for mitigation measures as well as slashing carbon emissions.

Libya shows the disastrous consequences when governments not only fail to protect their citizens but also put them into greater danger. Muammar Gaddafi’s corrupt regime has been followed by more than a decade of revolution, civil war and political deadlock. Essential infrastructure has not only been neglected – one of Derna’s dams had reportedly not been maintained since 2002 – but also plundered by the powerful and their cronies.

Even when disaster loomed, the authorities in eastern Libya, controlled by the warlord Khalifa Haftar, failed in their most basic duties. As Anas el Gomati of the country’s Sadeq Institute has pointed out, this is not like the earthquake that struck without warning in Morocco last week, killing at least 2,900 people. Officials saw Storm Daniel’s impact in Greece and had days to plan an evacuation. Some people were apparently told to leave, but others were reportedly ordered to stay at home even as water swelled behind the dams.

In the aftermath, with children crying for help in the wreckage, rescue and relief efforts continue to be hampered by politics as well as the destruction of essential infrastructure. There is widespread cynicism about the willingness of the internationally recognised government in Tripoli and Mr Haftar’s rival government to truly put the suffering first. Key figures in civil society, precisely the people who might mobilise relief efforts, languish in jail while their compatriots need them.

But there is also anger that most other governments appear slow to respond to this catastrophe. Vast fossil fuel reserves and regional security objectives have encouraged foreign powers to meddle in Libya. The EU has given the country hundreds of millions of euros to curb migration, ignoring appalling abuses by the Libyan coast guard. Is it now willing to help ordinary Libyans? France, which has done so much to bolster Mr Haftar, has a particular responsibility to ensure a strong European response. Libyans have good reason to feel that they have been failed by the international community as well as their own leaders. Now more than ever, they need real support.


Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images - A damaged vehicle stuck in debris after the floods caused by Storm Daniel ravaged Derna, Libya.