Human Factors at Derna
The people of Libya’s coastal town of Derna are still collecting the dead from under mud flows and washing up on the shore. Their numbers are likely to rise into the tens of thousands. A total of 891 buildings were destroyed; 211 buildings were partially damaged, and 398 others were submerged in mud. Of an estimated total Derna population of 120,000, some 46,000 have been displaced.
The freak rains and tornados amid a rare Mediterranean hurricane on 10 September 2023 did their part, as a presumed result of climate change, but the bulk of the flood waters have been attributed to the failure of two dams in Wadi Derna. That manmade hazard—now catastrophe—has made the Derna disaster less than natural.
Hazards exist in nature, but they are considered ‘disasters’ when they erupt, like a volcano, or quake the earth, even underwater to create tsunamis, to bring about human consequences. However, apart from those natural phenomena, the disasters that arise as a function of human-caused climate change, can no longer be called ‘natural.’ Hence, the contemporary distinction between natural and human-made hazards and disasters. The Derna case is a tragic combination of both human-made hazards and disaster.
Continuing southward from Türkiye and Greece, Storm Daniel brought with it over 200 mm of rainfall. The storm came with warnings. Libya’s National Meteorological Center said it issued early warnings about the storm 72 hours before it landed, notifying government authorities by email and urging people to take caution and take preventive measures.
Speaking on al-Hadath radio channel, Friday, 15 September, Derna mayor `Abd ul-Mun`im al-Ghaithi said he personally ordered evacuating the city three or four days before the disaster. However, no such order was implemented. Some residents reported hearing police tell them to leave the area, but few seem to have left.
Other official sources apparently told residents to stay: A video posted by the Derna Security Directorate on Sunday, 10 September, announced a curfew starting that night “as part of the security measures to face the expected weather conditions.”
In the eastern-based parliament in Benghazi, speaker Aguila Saleh sought to deflect blame from authorities, describing what happened as an “unprecedented ‘natural disaster’, saying people should not focus on what could or should have been done. However, experts suggest that failures in the early warning system seem to have occurred. To be effective, flood forecasting systems need good data on forecast rainfall and river levels, a network of well-maintained measuring instruments on the ground, and a clear plan to get people out of harm`s way. Libya’s chaotic political situation is less than ideal to provide adequate flood early warning systems.
Derna has been subject to a sequence of floods emanating from the Wadi, including major events in 1941, 1959 and 1968. The 1959 flood appears to have been particularly catastrophic. Derna suffered floods in 1986, but two dams built in the 1970s succeeded in managing the water flowing through Wadi Derna to avoid serious damage to the city. However, this time, the great volume of rainwater apparently exceeded the design capacity of those 50-year-old structures.
The dams were built in the 1970s by a Yugoslavian company Hidrotehnika-Hidroenergetika, now based in Serbia. The upper dam, called the al-Bilad Dam, was located 13 km south of Derna, with a storage capacity of 1.5 million m3 of water, while the lower Abu Mansour Dam, only about 1 km upstream from the town, had a storage capacity of 22.5 million m3. The dams had a core of compacted clay with a carapace of stone.
When the rainfall exceeded al-Bilad Dam’s capacity, it collapsed. The surge of flood water caused the lower dam to break, 1 km away, sending a torrent of some 30 million m3 of water, the equivalent of 12 Olympic-size swimming pools, bursting in 7-meter-high waves onto the town.
Studies over nearly two decades had demonstrated that the area to be a high flood-risk zone. Therefore, the clay and stone dams of Wadi Derna basin needed periodic maintenance. It was known that increasing vegetation cover was required to stabilize the soil and reduce the phenomenon of desertification.
Several reports already had warned of a disaster in the Derna Valley basin if the dams were not maintained. A contract was concluded with the Turkish Arsel İnşaat company for 53.5 million Libyan dinars (about US$11 million) to fix both dams in 2020, but no work was done. A year later, Libya’s Audit Bureau criticized the Ministry of Works and Natural Resources for “inaction” and failing to cancel the contract with Arsel, or give it to a company that would do the work. No authority acted, even when a scientific study last year warned of the very disaster that happened on 10 September.
Col. Muammar Qadhdhafi’s rule (1969–2011) from Tripoli had built a power base on alliances with tribes in the west of the country, perpetuating a neglect of the eastern part until the NATO-supported resistance ended that regime. However, no sufficient international crisis plan sought to remedy the factionalism, but Russia, Egypt, Türkiye and UAE have supported Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s dictatorship militarily after Islamic State and other militias filled the void.
As a result, the internationally recognized Libyan government based in the capital Tripoli in the west of the country has no influence in the east, under a Haftar’s rival administration controlling the area where this latest disaster struck.
Political infighting continues between the UN-recognized government of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and the Benghazi-based Prime Minister Ossama Hamad, backed by a Tobruk-based House of Representatives and Libyan National Army under Haftar’s command.
Added to this human-made disaster is the hazard of landmines and unexploded ordnance that litter the landscape, while major routes in and around Derna have been washed out. This poses an additional peril for people living in the Derna Valley, as well as for rescue efforts and personnel.
Notably, Libya’s Voluntary National Review (VNR), submitted to the UN High-level Political Forum in 2020, made no mention of climate action. The otherwise-ample VNR provided information about climatic conditions, it indicated either no action, no strategic planning and/or no data to report.
Photo: A combination image of satellite photos shows an area before and after powerful Storm Daniel and heavy rainfall hit Derna, Libya, 2 September 2023 (top) and 12 September 2023 (bottom). Source: Planet Labs PBC via Reuters.