Jason Pack and Verity Hubbard
Poor global and domestic governance made a foreseeable and preventable disaster in Derna a catastrophe.
On Sunday, Sept. 10, Libya suffered its worst natural disaster in living memory. In fact, more people died that day than in any battle of Libya’s wars of post-Qaddafi succession.
Starting in the early morning hours, heavy rains strafed the eastern city of Derna, causing two nearby dams to burst—flooding everything downstream. Two weeks later, the scale of the disaster has come into more precise focus: The Libyan Red Crescent reports more than 11,000 people are dead; 10,000 people are still missing; and 30,000 are now homeless. Aerial footage of the city reveals utter devastation—replete with floating corpses and bereft families.
International attention on Libya can rapidly spike, capturing global headlines in a way that events in places such as Benin, Bolivia, or Mozambique cannot, but such attention is always fleeting and superficial. Fewer than 15 days out from the disaster, the world’s gaze is already starting to swivel. But the root causes of the tragedy remain unaddressed and unaltered.
The destruction in Derna was exacerbated by two fundamental governance errors. The first was the condition of what are now being referred to as the “dams of death”—the Wadi Derna and Wadi al-Rakha dams. Derna’s wadi, or river valley, has severely flooded before: in 1941, 1945, 1956, 1959, and 1968. As a result, from 1973 to 1977, a Yugoslav company was contracted by the Ministry of Agriculture to build the dams. Like much of Libya’s critical infrastructure, including its roads, hospitals, and oil fields, these two dams have long needed maintenance.
Funds were assigned to maintain the dams in 2007, during the reign of dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, and a Turkish firm, Arsel Construction Company Ltd., was contracted to carry out the work. Arsel claims to have completed some maintenance after the 2011 uprisings against Qaddafi; according to ABC News, Arsel posted on its website that it completed its part of the maintenance in November 2012. The company did indeed do maintenance on the dam in 2010, but then left the country when the uprisings broke out in 2011 and did not return post-Qaddafi; because by 2012, Derna was already an ungoverned space. Subsequently, the construction sites were looted. The machinery and equipment were stolen.
Over the following 10 years, little if anything was done in the way of comprehensive maintenance. In 2012 and 2013, more than $2 million was allocated for the maintenance of the dams, but no work took place. This is par for the course in Libya. Many building and maintenance projects in Libya are stopped midstream. The reasons for this are manifold. Primarily, foreign firms lose access to building sites due to the security situation, governmental travel advisories, or as their personnel get denied visas; and secondarily, the Libyan semi-sovereign entities that have contracted with the foreign firms fail to pay their invoices.
In 2021, a Libyan Audit Bureau report indicated that relevant financial authorities were well aware of the need for dam maintence, after 11 years of neglect. The 2020 GNA temporary financial mechanism (Libya’s unofficial budget) had allocated, but not disbursed, roughly $10 million toward maintenance of the dams.
However, inefficiencies and corruption surrounding Libya’s letters of credit system meant that, despite the allocations, the hard currency was never released and the dams were never fixed.
(In Libya, all hard currency transactions go through a central spigot—the Central Bank. Ministries, municipalities, or semi-sovereign construction entities such as the Housing and Infrastructure Board cannot purchase foreign construction materials or pay international contractors themselves. Due to the multistep process, projects can be blocked by the audit bureau; or the relevant letter of credit, which constitutes the hard currency payment to overseas firms, may never be dispersed.)
In short, the Libyan government knew the dams needed to be fixed, had the money to repair the dams, and had relationships and contracts to repair the dams—yet nothing happened.
It is quite possible that specific foreign firms would not accept contracts for future maintenance because previous building works or maintenance contracts remained unpaid, or that the previously contracted Arsel could not get to the Derna dams because it had been evicted from Eastern Libya by the Libyan National Army (LNA), which perceives all Turkish firms as aligned to rival political factions based in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. This first governance failure is deeply emblematic of the dysfunction that defines the current era of global disorder—an era characterized by poor stakeholder coordination that culminates in suboptimal outcomes. In Derna, overlapping corporate, governmental, military, and regulatory authorities were not able to solve a collective action problem.
The second governance failure relates to the precautionary measures, or lack thereof, put in place by the LNA and the other eastern authorities. When heavy rains are expected, dam managers should monitor the situation closely in coordination with meteorologists. If required, dam engineers are usually able to release quantities of water so that the hydraulic pressure on the dam does not rapidly increase beyond the dam’s operational capacity. This did not happen in Derna.
Civilians, too, were unprepared; in the hours before Storm Daniel hit, messaging from Libya’s authorities was extremely unclear. Residents seem to have been given contradictory advice: Some authorities imposed curfews and advised residents to shelter in place, while others called for evacuations. The LNA and eastern Government of National Stability (GNS) imposed a two-day curfew beginning at 8 p.m. on Sept. 9. Then, in contradiction to those orders, residents of some particularly exposed houses right on the coast were later told to evacuate.
Many people refused to leave their homes due to the mixed messaging and lack of trust in the authorities. Unsurprisingly, the LNA is not trusted by most Derna residents; so even if in some instances the LNA correctly cried wolf, it was not believed. However, it seems that in most cases, the LNA told people to shelter in place.
This second governance failure is also representative of the types of online misinformation that already characterize democratic politics in an increasingly disordered world. Even as the crisis was unfolding, the key actors in the drama sought to rewrite the history of the hours preceding the flooding. Social media was being inundated with deep fakes and disinformation even as rescue efforts were underway. One such deep fake, now deleted, shows Derna’s mayor superimposed onto a video of the flood, urging the city’s residents to evacuate. And this is just the beginning. Deep fakes and rewriting the news through editing online posts are likely to increasingly define our era’s media landscape.
The two governance failures we cite were due to dysfunction in Libya’s political system and economy. Libya is divided by two rival administrations: the Government of National Unity (GNU), based in Tripoli and recognised by the United Nations; and GNS in the East—though in reality, Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s LNA is in de facto control of much of the region. Each government is supported by different, competing international backers, pulling the country in opposing directions.
Libya’s maze of semi-sovereign institutions means the country has no law and order, no enforceable building regulations, an inefficient subsidy system, and hardly any functional emergency services. There is also no effort to charge what things really cost. This situation has only been able to arise due to a disordered global system in which U.S. allies (such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey) are on opposite sides of a conflict and Western leadership is conspicuously absent.
In addition to facilitating the problem, these same dysfunctions have hampered international rescue organizations’ attempts to deliver aid. Before even arriving in Libya, these organizations were faced with the confounding problems presented by two existing governments. To whom do they apply for a visa? When they arrive in country, do they engage with the East’s nominal government, the GNS, or the real powerbrokers, the LNA? Who is coordinating the aid operation? Our contacts have reported the difficulties of obtaining visas, while observers have accused the LNA of creating “bottlenecks” in the disaster zone. As a result, more lives have tragically been lost.
By next week, the cameras and the journalists will have left Derna. So too will international attention. It will not be sustained during the reconstruction phase. Nor will it reappear when Libyans demand accountability from their leaders to help bring them to justice.
Libyans are rightly seething. They have held demonstrations and issued declarations in Derna and elsewhere against the negligence and endemic corruption of political elites. Investigations led by Libya’s attorney general (based in Tripoli, though not officially affiliated with either the GNU or the GNS) are underway to find out who is responsible for this tragedy. But given that the political elites of both East and West Libya will be implicated, the inquiry will likely be fruitless and key evidence will be suppressed.
Instead of acknowledging their real role in the lead-up to the tragedy, incumbent political actors will seek to control the narrative and present themselves as saviors. Political scapegoats are already being sent into the wilderness: The mayor of Derna, Abdel Moneim al-Ghaithi, has been suspended by the Eastern authorities. On Sept. 18, his house in Derna was burned to the ground by protesters. But Libya’s two most important power players, Haftar and GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, are unlikely to experience a downfall. Instead, they will maneuver carefully to retain their positions and pass the buck to lower-level officials.
The reconstruction of Derna will be highly politicized. The speaker of Libya’s Eastern-based parliament, the House of Representatives, announced that he had earmarked more than $2 billion and created an emergency committee to address the flooding. Days later, his deputy followed up with a counter-statement undermining the announcement, insisting that the mechanism used to create the emergency committee was illegal. Simultaneously, Western Libyan militias are tweeting that they are providing security over parts of Derna, while the rival LNA claims that it alone has already secured Derna. Each is likely scrambling to secure their piece of the pie.
No human tragedy is too great for Libya’s entrenched power brokers to exploit.
As the waters recede and misinformation spreads, a truth is nonetheless being revealed: Most Libyans want a united country. Some Derna residents have issued a powerful communiqué calling for more international institutional involvement. They rightly decry the East-West divide and the rhetoric against international institutions being promulgated by Libya’s political elite and their regional backers. As rival unaccountable elites each peddle a narrative to avoid accountability, residents of Derna are calling for better governance of their city and coherent, collective action.
Jason Pack is the founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis and the author of Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder. He is the author of Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder, a senior analyst at the NATO Foundation, and is the 2018 World Champion of Doubles Backgammon.
Verity Hubbard is a security operations manager at Northcott Global Solutions.