In the aftermath of a burst dam and massive flooding, Crisis Group expert Claudia Gazzini travelled to Derna in eastern Libya to cover the relief effort and assess the two rival governments’ response.
It is devastating to visit the coastal Libyan city of Derna after dams burst and floods deluged the town in the early hours of 11 September, resulting in an estimated 20,000 deaths. The city’s landmark al-Sahaba mosque and its golden dome are intact, but what remains of the city centre can best be described as a vast plain of concrete blocks.
I am told the floods instantly flattened many of the buildings that once stood here, sweeping some out to sea, where they now lie in the Mediterranean mud. The few structures that withstood the flood have hardly been spared – their first four stories having been submerged when the waters roared through.
I recently had the privilege of glimpsing an alternate reality for Derna and its people. I have been an observer and analyst of Libya for the past eleven years, and I was in Derna barely two months ago. Despite years of civil war and long-term government neglect, the city was thriving. Buildings that had been damaged during the years of conflict were going back up.
Workers were putting the finishing touches on a new public library. Restaurants were open for business. Now, the city is an expanse of rubble. The chances of finding the thousands still missing, let alone survivors, diminish by the day.
Fortunately, the city is receiving a helping hand. Contrary to fears and some expectations, foreign assistance is making its way to Derna. Moreover, ordinary Libyans – even those from parts of the country ruled by Tripoli-based authorities who do not control this corner of the east – have rallied to send aid.
But while the outside help is unquestionably good news, I worry that as time passes, international attention to the city will wane and Libya’s rival factions will revert to form – manipulating the crisis for financial or political gain rather than allowing it to serve as a catalyst for greater cooperation in rebuilding, whether in Derna or in the country as a whole.
The Roots of a Tragedy
The tragedy that befell Derna resulted from the sudden collapse of the city’s two dams, which had been built by a Yugoslav company in the mid-1970s. They fell first and foremost because heavy rains brought by the cyclone-like storm named Daniel – which hit eastern Libya on 10 September – was channelled into the valley to Derna’s south, causing water to surge over the dams and, eventually, to overwhelm them.
Work to renovate these dams had started in 2008, but it was never completed. How much blame to place on this fact is subject to debate. Local authorities and Libya’s water ministry argue that even a brand-new, perfectly constructed dam could not have held back the record-breaking quantity of rain that poured down on Derna that night.
It is too early to form a conclusive view as to whether this contention is accurate, though I hope to offer some thoughts on this score in a later piece. What can be said unequivocally is that a decade of poor governance, intermittent conflict and political infighting has devasted Libya in general, and Derna in particular, making its people especially vulnerable to bursting dams and other force majeure events.
Derna’s struggles date back decades. The city suffered during the 42-year reign of strongman Col. Muammar al-Qadhafi. Factions in the city had opposed his rule, and he starved it of investment in retaliation. But after a UN-mandated international coalition ousted the Qadhafi regime in 2011, the situation became even worse. Libya eventually descended into civil war. In 2014, contested elections split the country in two. The following year, Islamist militants seized Derna and declared it part of the ISIS caliphate.
While the militants were ousted in 2016, war continued in Derna for another year – this time between local Islamists, on one hand, and forces headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar on the other. During that time, Libya fragmented, with authority divided between two rival governments and military coalitions.
The country remains split to this day, with an internationally recognised government headed by Abdelhamid Dabaiba, based in Tripoli, and a rival administration in the east, led by Osama Hamad. These factions have for the past two years focused on vying for power and money, investing only at a small scale in reconstruction of buildings and bridges in the areas they respectively control, while neglecting the country’s major infrastructure, including the dams and waterways.
The government split is directly relevant to the situation in Derna because the internationally recognised Tripoli-based government, which includes a Presidency Council headed by Mohamed Mnefi, exercises no authority in the stricken area of eastern Libya.
It is the Hamad government, backed by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), that oversees the operations in the east and has effective control of Derna. Moreover, international donors line up on different sides of the divide – with some backing Haftar and others the government in Tripoli.
There was widespread concern when disaster struck that such rivalries would impede relief efforts and prevent Derna from getting the help it needs.