Floods, death, destruction, and humanitarian aid in a country in perpetual political, social and humanitarian crisis since 2011
In a tragic turn of events, Storm Daniel left a lasting mark on the Mediterranean region, becoming the deadliest Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone in recorded history. Spanning from the 4th to the 12th of September, this devastating cyclone touched multiple countries, with Libya bearing the brunt of its fury. The night of September 10th to the 11th proved particularly catastrophic for the Libyan city of Derna when torrential rains and flooding led to the breach of two important dams. The ensuing deluge, resulting from both rainfall and dam failures, exacted a staggering human toll, with a reported minimum of 4,000 lives lost, while up to 10,000 individuals remain unaccounted for. The disaster also forced over 40,000 people into displacement[i]. This article delves into the myriad of challenges that have impeded the humanitarian response to this catastrophe.
Rescue workers working in Derna, from the Palestinian Civil Defence team responding to the floods,[Image By, Palestinian International Cooperation Agency]
Derna was affected most heavily, but many other towns in the region have been damaged and require humanitarian aid. Help is specifically needed in the towns Sousa, Toukra, Tolmeita, Albayda, Shahat, Albayada, and Benghazi. There are damages to houses and infrastructure due to the floods and the arrival of people displaced in Derna. According to a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report from September 28th,[ii] there are 250,000 affected people in need of some form of humaitatian assistance. The OCHA is also working with 27 partner organizations in order to further coordinate humanitarian aid. Due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis and the social and political instability, giving humanitarian aid in the country is not without difficulty.
The breaking of the two dams near Derna and the subsequent floods exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Libya, which started in 2011 after the NATO-backed Arab Spring which saw the overthrow and subsequent murder of longtime Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. Ever since the Arab Spring, Libya has been through multiple civil wars and is in a state of political instability up to this day. Currently, and ever since 2011, there has not been one actor in control of the whole of Libya. There are at least three different actors currently active and fighting for power and control. It is important to understand the background of the situation in Libya because it plays a large factor in the giving of humanitarian aid, poses multiple obstacles to rebuilding the dams, and is potentially one of the causes for the dams being weak, and therefore failing in such a catastrophic manner.
A view shows people looking at the damaged areas, in the aftermath of the floods in Derna, Libya, September 14. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
Geoscientist Dave Petley, affiliated with the University of Hull, analyzed the disaster and suggests it’s plausible that the flood was similar to a waterfall. In his analysis he hypothesizes that the initial dam was overwhelmed and collapsed, leading to a torrent of water and sediment that devastated the second dam. Petley[iii] points out that the location of the lower dam, situated merely one kilometer upstream from the city, likely amplified the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of the flood. When a dam fails at such close proximity to populated areas, there’s minimal room for the water to disperse, resulting in Derna bearing the full force of the disaster. Adding that “a population that has been subjected to conflict and a failed government will have had a high level of vulnerability, which will increase the death toll”. There have also been reports that point towards the lack of maintenance on the 50-year-old dams, maintenance which has not been done since at least 2011 due to conflict in the country.[iv]
The conflicts and failed governments that Libya’s population has been taxed with are quite complex. Libya’s recent history is marked by a relentless cycle of conflict and civil strife that has profoundly shaped its political and social landscape. The origins of this enduring unrest can be traced back to 2011 when during the Arab Spring, Libya had a revolution. This is also known as the 2011 Libyan civil war. This revolution, in conjunction with a NATO-led coalition against the government, resulted in the overthrow and assassination of the long-standing ruler Qaddafi. This created a perilous power vacuum. In the wake of his demise, various factions embarked on a fierce struggle for control, ushering in a dual power structure. This resulted in a divided nation, with rival governments staking their claims in the East, West and South, each garnering varying degrees of international recognition. The relentless competition for supremacy has plunged Libya into civil war and turmoil, fueling persistent instability.
A Map of Libya (Green are Tribal Forces, Blue is GNU, Red is LNA &HoR). Live UA Map, Libya.
The red parts are controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA) also known as Haftar’s Forces, named after their Commander Khalifa Haftar. It is also backed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the Government of National Stability (GNS). The LNA and the HoR have been involved in ongoing conflicts within Libya, primarily against the GNA and subsequent GNU but also with the tribal forces in the South (green). The LNA and its allies have received support from various external actors, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The GNS was established on 3 March 2022. It is a provisional government of Libya based in Sirte, led by Osama Hamada and supported by the House of Representatives and the Libyan National Army It is an alternative provisional government to the GNA and GNU that will be explained in the next paragraph.[v]
The area that is blue used to be controlled by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and is now controlled by the Government of National Unity (GNU). The GNU is, or rather, was meant to be, a transitional government. In 2021, the LPDF, comprising of 72 largely unknown Libyan representatives appointed by a UN body named UNSMIL got tasked to select a new prime minister and executive branch members until new elections could take place. The process was marred by allegations of bribery. The GNU struggled to establish the required legal framework for legitimacy and for new elections. Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeiba (GNU, blue) attempted to nominate himself as a presidential candidate and proposed a law to prevent Haftar (LNA, red) from running for president due to dual citizenship and military duties. After this, the House of Representatives in Tobruk (red) protested and passed a vote of no confidence.[vi]
The Southwest, the area that is green in the image above is in control of different Tuareg, Tabu, and Arab tribes, or in the control of no one, depending on one’s interpretation. The escalation of hostilities among tribes in the southern region is predominantly rooted in the competition for control over established economic channels, particularly linked to smuggling routes and access to oil fields. The involvement of political actors from the northern regions further exacerbates the situation, as it entails the provision of financial incentives and weaponry to young men from the south by factions aligned with loose coalitions. Consequently, this support has led to the protraction and intensification of local conflicts. None of these tribes is internationally recognized, and this is also not the goal of these tribes. They are groups of people fighting to gain power over social and economic resources whilst the other factions (red and blue on the map) also try to “win them over for their side”.[vii]
Members of the Libyan National Army commanded by Khalifa Haftar. Esam Omran al-Fetori, Reuters
Over the years there have been multiple attempts to bring the House of Representatives, the Government of National Stability, and the Government of National Accord (the red and the blue actors) closer and to create peace between them. Each time this has failed. There have been multiple civil wars in Libya since the start of 2011. The first civil war was in 2011, during the Arab Spring. In 2011, Libya stood apart from Tunisia and Egypt. Ruled by authoritarian leader Qaddafi, its small population and strong economy ensured relative prosperity. The oil and gas sector employed many, sharing the wealth. Qaddafi’s enduring power relied on political control and alliances. Unexpectedly, Libya, previously deemed stable, saw coordinated violence. Certain European governments quickly supported anti-government forces. NATO and the U.S. reluctantly acted to cripple Libyan government assets, preventing a loyalist advance on Benghazi. Qaddafi left the capital, ultimately perishing in Sirte, leading to ongoing power struggles due to the power vacuum he left behind.[viii]
Currently, there is no active battle, but Libya is under dual rule of both the LNA, GNS and HoR (red) and on the other side the GNU (blue). Dr. Ibrahim Fraihat, a professor in International Conflict Resolution, has put forth the argument that there is a stalemate because “ Libya became so divided that many became interested in keeping the status quo”[ix]. On top of that there is no large push for either the GNS/LNA/HoR nor for the GNU to fight for full control of the country because many developed an interest in the status quo because a transition to a stronger state would decrease their power and caries too many risks.[x] There are also many other factors that have led to the stalemate, and the situation in Libya is frankly so complicated that one would need to write at least a whole book in order to explain it comprehensively.
Rescue and Recovery Diver El-Hassi and the team captain go over diving locations in search of more bodies. Ahmed Zidane, Al Jazeera
This article cannot give you a conclusion, it is an introduction to the current situation in Libya, where the humanitarian crisis continues to unfold. This article aimed to give vital context in order for you, the reader to get insight into the already existing humanitarian crisis that was exacerbated by the flood in Derna. In part, it might also explain why the dams broke, given that they are over 50 years old and had not been maintained, at least since 2011, when Qaddafi was overthrown and the widespread civil unrest started. For now, the OCHA and other humanitarian organizations continue to give aid to Libyans in need, although at a slower pace than might have been if the country was united under one stable government. There is currently nothing that indicates that Libya will have elections soon and will move closer to a united, stable government[xi], either way that is not what the people of Derna are currently concerned about. According to the most recent updates over 8 thousand people are still missing, Diver El-Hassi above, is part of the team searching for them.
[i] Relief Web. “Libya Hurricane Daniel: Situation Report 4 – 06/10/2023 – Libya.” ReliefWeb, 9 Oct. 2023, www.reliefweb.int/report/libya/libya-hurricane-daniel-situation-report-4-06102023?_gl=1*hjv7s1*_ga*NjYyNTQzMzc4LjE2OTY4NjIwNjI.*_ga_E60ZNX2F68*MTY5Njg2MjA2MS4xLjEuMTY5Njg2MjA2My41OC4wLjA
[ii] OCHA, “Libya: Flood Response Humanitarian Update (as of 28 September 2023) [EN/AR].” OCHA, 29 Sept. 2023, www.unocha.org/publications/report/libya/libya-flood-response-humanitarian-update-28-september-2023-enar.
[iii]Petley, Dave. “The Failed Dams in Wadi Derna in Libya.” Eos, 13 Sept. 2023, https://eos.org/thelandslideblog/the-failed-dams-in-wadi-derna-in-libya
[iv] Moneim Saeed, Abdel. “سدود وادي درنة، البداية والنهاية !!!” صحيفة ليبيا الاخبارية, News Libya, 12 Sept. 2023, www.newslibya.ly/%D8%B3%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%AF-%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D8%B1%D9%86%D8%A9%D8%8C-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%A9
[vi] Makhmutova, M. (2023) PEACEKEEPING IN LIBYA: FAILURES AND MISTAKES.7-8
[vii] Wehrey, F. (2017). Insecurity and governance challenges in Southern Libya. Washington, DC: Carnegie endowment for international peace. 1. https://www-jstor-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/stable/pdf/resrep12872.pdf
[viii]Pedde, N. (2017). The Libyan conflict and its controversial roots. European view, 16(1), 94-95.
[ix] Fraihat, I., & Yaseen, T. (2020). Evolving Trends in the Post-Arab Spring Era: Implications for Peace and Stability in the MENA Region. Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 15(3), 334. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.1177/1542316620934365
[x] Fraihat, I. (2016). Unfinished revolutions: Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia after the Arab spring. Yale University Press. 67
[xi] Emig, Addison. “Libya’s Elusive Elections: Will 2023 Be the Year for Elections?” Wilson Center, 16 Aug. 2023, www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/libyas-elusive-elections-will-2023-be-year-elections.