Still, Libyans across the country suspect that the authorities are to blame, and their suspicions are understandable. Since the tragedy, it has been widely reported that while the authorities knew that the dam needed upkeep, the necessary maintenance was never done. As far back as the 1990s, when Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi still reigned over Libya, Sweisi said, government officials understood that Wadi Bu Mansour had structural deficiencies. “We contracted a Swiss consultancy to study the issue and draw up a plan for how to resolve it”, he told me. “Eventually, we hired a Turkish company to carry out the dam’s renovation works”.
The company, Arsel, signed a contract in 2008 and started working on the dam in 2010. Sweisi said the two-year lag in starting work on the dam was due to delays in payment. Then, with the 2011 uprising against Qadhafi and the ensuing NATO-led intervention that led to his ouster, the Turkish team left. Subsequently, thieves made off with all the equipment Arsel had left behind.
Sweisi went on to explain that in 2014, the government (then led by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan) signed a new contract with Arsel, compensating it for the lost equipment. But by that time, Islamic State militants had taken over Derna and the security situation did not allow the company to resume the renovation. By the time other local Islamists defeated the Islamic State, and the Haftar-led Libyan National Army subsequently stepped in to control Derna, it was 2018. By then, Libya had already split into two rival governments, one in the east and the other in Tripoli. Türkiye was supporting the Tripoli government, with which Arsel had the contract. It was thus impossible for the company to operate in the east.
Still, Sweisi was categorical that the disaster could not have been prevented even if a brand-new dam in tip-top condition with the same dimensions had served as the barrier. “Not even a perfectly new dam could have blocked that amount of water”, he told me. “For us, this was 100 per cent a natural disaster”, echoing the Tripoli-based water ministry’s official position.
Maybe Sweisi is right, but it is hard to be sure. The tragedy indeed started as a natural phenomenon: a passing storm dropping record-breaking volumes of rain. But it is also clear that the infrastructure protecting Derna was not in optimal condition and that its neglect had many parents. War and political division are among them, but there are also questions about how the renovation contract with Arsel was managed. In particular, The New York Times has raised questions about whether some of the money allocated for rehabilitation of the dam went to kickbacks to Libyan officials.
Libya’s audit bureau, which has hundreds of documents related to the Arsel contract, has handed them over to the General Prosecutor’s office for investigation. The latter is conducting a range of probes of the dam collapse and he has reportedly ordered the detention of several individuals in relation thereto.
Both Tunisi and Sweisi could be among those who have been detained as part of these inquiries (I could not reach them by telephone at the time of writing). If they have been detained, it does not mean they are guilty or that a crime has been committed, of course: in Libya people can be arrested without probable cause. Adherence to due process safeguards will be critically important as Libyan authorities look into why the dams burst – both to avoid ensnaring innocent people and to help make sure the truth comes out.
Finally, there is a further reason to question whether this tragedy would have happened in a country with a functioning and unified government, one in which the population trusts state institutions. Many Derna residents are deeply wary of the security forces controlling the city after years of strife as well as the war to defeat the Islamic State, in the later phase of which the Haftar-led forces also targeted Islamist groups that enjoyed popular support. Some suggest this history could have led people to resist the police’s evacuation orders.
To reach a definitive assessment of what happened on 10-11 September, local and international experts will need to verify precipitation levels, carry out on-site inspections of what remains of the Wadi Bu Mansour dam, analyse contracts and other documents, and speak with eyewitnesses. Understandably, Libyans want answers.
Given people’s pervasive distrust of their country’s institutions, the authorities and foreign partners should consider appointing an independent commission of inquiry tasked with conducting a thorough investigation into this tragedy. It is too late for the thousands of people lost in the Derna flood, but the lessons learned can help the city prepare for a safer future, while also offering insights to other communities that sit downstream of dams and may be similarly exposed.
Claudia Gazzini is the International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Libya. She has covered this role since 2012.