Frederic Wehrey

What a deluged town reveals about a broken country

Footage and eyewitness accounts have conveyed harrowing scenes from the storm-struck Libyan town of Derna: overflowing morgues and mass burials, rescuers digging through mud with their bare hands to recover bodies, a corpse hanging from a streetlight, the cries of trapped children.

Two aging dams to Derna’s south collapsed under the pressure of Storm Daniel, sending an estimated 30 million cubic meters of water down a river valley that runs through the city’s center and erasing entire neighborhoods. Some 11,300 people are currently believed dead—a number that could double in the days ahead. An estimated 38,000 residents have been displaced.

Libya has seen no shortage of suffering and misery since the 2011 revolution that toppled its longtime dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Yet Storm Daniel promises to be a singular event. Already, Libyan commentators inside the country and out are pointing to the apocalyptic loss of life in Derna as the product not simply of a natural disaster, but of Libya’s divided and ineffectual governance. The west of the country is run by the internationally recognized Government of National Unity; the east, including Derna, falls under the rule of the renegade strongman Khalifa Haftar.

Derna has become an emblem of ills that afflict many of Libya’s 7 million inhabitants: infrastructural decay, economic neglect, unpreparedness for global warming. But to understand the scale of its destruction requires seeing the city in its particularity—as a stronghold of opposition to Haftar’s violent consolidation of power in eastern Libya, and before that, a hub of intellectualism and dissent. Derna’s suffering is not entirely an accident. Though for that matter, neither is Libya’s.

Founded on the ruins of the Greek city of Darnis, Derna has always been a place apart in Libya, distinguished by its cosmopolitanism, creative ferment, and fierce independence. It sits along the Mediterranean coast, at the base of the aptly named Jabal Akhdar, or Green Mountains, which constitute Libya’s wettest region and account for anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of its plant species. A port city of 100,000, Derna is famous for its gardens, river-fed canals, night-flowering jasmine, and delicious bananas and pomegranates.

Muslim Andalusians fleeing persecution in Spain helped build the city in the 16th century, leaving their imprint on the designs of mosques and ornamental doors in its old quarter. Waves of other settlers would make their way there across the Mediterranean.

By the early 20th century, Derna had become a font of literary output and nationalist agitation. Poets and playwrights gathered in a weekly cultural salon called the Omar Mukhtar Association to rail against colonial rule across the region, and after 1951, against the Libyan monarchy.

An officers’ coup ousted that monarchy in 1969, and the country’s new ruler—Colonel Muammar Qaddafi—naturally took a wary view of the coastal city’s troublemaking potential. By the 1980s, he had made Derna a place of despair, its arts scene eviscerated, its prosperous traders dispossessed, its youth crushed by unemployment.

Many of Derna’s young men joined the Islamist insurgency against Qaddafi that spread through the Green Mountains in the 1990s. The dictator responded by shutting down the region’s water service and detaining, torturing, and executing oppositionists.

By the mid-2000s, the city’s rage was channeled outward, as hundreds of young men flocked from Derna to Iraq to fight the American military occupation. The U.S. military captured documents attesting to the militancy of these recruits, also revealed in a U.S. diplomat’s 2006 cable titled “Die Hard in Derna.”

In the years after  Qaddafi’s fall in 2011, Derna became the site of violent infighting among Islamists, including a radical faction that sought to make the city an outpost of the Islamic State.

Haftar, a Qaddafi-era general and defector, began his military campaign under the guise of eliminating jihadist militias and restoring security. But his sweep was actually a bid for national power, and Derna’s fighters were among its staunchest opponents.

He was determined to subdue the city. With remorseless, siege-like tactics and substantial foreign assistance, including air strikes and special-operations forces from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and several Western countries, he did so in 2018, though at the cost of destroying swaths of the city and displacing thousands.

In the years since, Haftar has kept Derna under a virtual military lockdown, ruled by an ineffective puppet municipality and deprived of reconstruction funds, human services, and, crucially, attention to its decaying infrastructure, including the two dams that collapsed during Storm Daniel. Studies and experts had long warned that the dams were in dire need of repair.

Derna’s officials and Haftar’s military authority reportedly issued contradictory instructions as the storm approached: Some advised an evacuation and others ordered a curfew. The confusion suggests a lack of coordination within the eastern government, which, a Libyan climate scientist told me this week, habitually paid little attention to expertise. Haftar will exert tight control over relief and reconstruction efforts in the weeks ahead, funneling contracts to companies run by cronies and family members.

Having obstructed Haftar’s ambitions, Derna has become a particular target for repression. But Haftar’s style of rule—kleptocratic, authoritarian, extractive—has made for poor stewardship of eastern Libya’s infrastructure and natural environment, leaving other communities vulnerable to climate-induced extreme weather events as well.

Haftar’s militia controls a body called the Military Investment Authority, which is essentially a profit-making enterprise for the Haftar family. The authority has taken control of eastern Libya’s agriculture, energy, and construction, with dire consequences for the environment.

Climate activists from the east have told me that under Haftar’s watch, the deforestation of the Green Mountains has accelerated. Elites and militias have cut down trees to build vacation residences and businesses, and to sell the wood as charcoal. Urban development and new settlements have expanded into once-forested areas to accommodate people displaced by war.

The absence of tree cover, other human-induced transformations to the Green Mountains, and irregular patterns of rainfall caused by climate change are worsening the damage that floods can wreak. Those that hit the eastern city of Al-Bayda in late 2020 displaced thousands of people. And without the cooling effect of the mountains’ sizable forests, the average mean temperature in the area has risen, which in turn raises the risk of wildfires among the trees that remain. Already, soaring heat waves set forests aflame near the towns of Shahat and Al-Bayda, in 2013 and 2021 respectively.

In most countries, civil society and other grassroots actors can help address such ecological concerns. But in Haftar-ruled east Libya, climate and environmental activists face an extremely repressive security machinery that either stifles their involvement or confines it to politically safe initiatives, such as tree planting.

“Young people are willing, but they are afraid,” an official from the region told me candidly in July. “There is no state support.” A member of a climate-volunteer group in the east told me this week by phone that Haftar’s government had blocked their group’s attempt to obtain weather-monitoring equipment from abroad, citing “security concerns.”

I’ve heard variations on this theme time and time again during my research in Libya—an arid, oil-dependent country that is among the world’s most vulnerable to the shocks of climate change, including floods and rising sea levels, but also soaring temperatures, declining rainfall, extended droughts, and sandstorms of increasing frequency, duration, and intensity.

According to one reputable survey in which higher numbers correlate with greater climate vulnerability,  Libya ranks 126th out of 182 states, just after Iraq, in the lower-middle tier. Despite the recent inundation of Derna and the east, water scarcity poses the gravest climate-related risk to the majority of its inhabitants: Libya ranks among the top six most water-stressed countries in the world, with 80 percent of its potable-water supply drawn from non-replenishable fossil aquifers by means of a deteriorating network of pipes and reservoirs. And yet Libya has done little to address its climate vulnerabilities.

The country’s political rivalries, corruption, and militia-ruled patronage system have stymied its response. The eastern and western camps engage in only modest exchanges of climate-related information and technology.

Even within the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the ministry of the environment and a climate authority within the prime minister’s office have been jockeying for control of the climate file. (They reached a modest modus vivendi in recent months, some insiders told me this summer.)

Derna’s plight is so extreme that perhaps—so activists and commentators hope—it will not be ignored, as countless other Libyan calamities have been, but may instead lead to lasting and positive change. Derna holds a lesson for Libya’s elites, if they are listening, about the costs of division and self-aggrandizement. Momentum toward such recognition, however tragic its origins, would be in keeping with the city’s storied and sometimes controversial role as beacon of dissent.

It’s a revolutionary city,” a climate scientist with family roots there told me this week.


Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


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