A race against time as the rainy season looms

In Derna the deluge came in the middle of the night. “We heard what sounded like an explosion at two am,” said Adel. “All of a sudden after that the water entered our home.”

Heavy rains from Storm Daniel, which swept through the east of the country, caused two dams to burst and unleashing walls of water that scoured the coastal cities of the region.

With no early warning, Adel’s family, like thousands of others across the city, was completely unprepared. 

“The water level was at six or seven metres,” he said. “We saved whoever we could. My brother, his wife, and six children all died. May they rest in peace.”

The floods have killed more than 4,300 people and WHO estimates that twice that number are unaccounted for. Grieving and bewildered residents tell the same story—an almost unimaginable catastrophe that swept everything before it.

Damage and displacement

Early drone and satellite images showed entire neighbourhoods wiped off the map, buildings reduced to rubble, and streets and bridges smashed beyond repair. Derna’s basic infrastructure along the riverbanks has been destroyed and three reservoirs are reportedly damaged.

More than 43,000 people have been displaced, left with literally nothing. They are badly in need of food, clean water, shelter, healthcare, and financial support.

Prices for basics such as bread, cooking oil, and vegetables have shot up. The fishing industry has come to a standstill, leaving those who depend on the sea for their living unable to earn money or feed their families.

The threat of disease from contaminated water looms large. And the floodwaters have shifted and exposed landmines and other unexploded ordnance of war, reviving one of the toxic legacies of the country’s recent conflict.

Immediately after the disaster, in mid September, a team of UN officials visited Derna, Al Bayda and Sousa to assess needs.

“What we saw in our mission is people confronting the catastrophic combination of an unprecedented natural disaster, years of conflict and insecurity, and devastation of nearly all basic infrastructure,” said UNDP Libya Resident Representative Christopher Laker.

In Benghazi, UNDP is working with local authorities and the Benghazi Derna Construction Fund to mobilize a cadre of international experts who will contribute to the recovery.

“As I stand here on this level ground, once the site of Derna’s old market, and listen to the locals emphasize the profound significance of the old city in their lives, it reinforces our determination to help resurrect this city to its former, beloved state,” said Mohamed Shembesh, Regional Project Coordinator, UNDP Libya:

UNDP estimates, drawing on the latest satellite imagery and open access data by United Nations Satellite Centre, NASA, and the European Union, reveal that the floods have left behind more than one million tonnes of debris, equivalent to the volume needed to fill 65 football fields to a height of 1.8 metres, the size of an average adult. 

The United Nations and its partners have launched an appeal for US$71 million to provide humanitarian and early recovery support to 250,000 people.

UNDP has deployed a SURGE team to support the Benghazi Derna Reconstruction Fund.

Repairing infrastructure and removing the rubble is a crucial first step. It accelerates the rebuilding process and offers a unique opportunity for an inclusive, environmentally sustainable recovery that actively engages Libyans and provides livelihood opportunities.

Observing from the sky

Reliable data will ensure that help is delivered quickly and where it is needed most. UNDP is gathering satellite imagery which will be available to all, and will be backed up by site visits, so that short- and long-term planning can best meet the needs of Libya’s citizens.

“We’re observing from the sky,” said Fabjan Lashi Digital Assessment Project Manager, UNDP Crisis Bureau. “More and more we have to rely on these tools because of the complex nature of crises and often no possibilities to visit the field. With new technology we can intervene faster and make better-informed decisions.”

That speed will be essential in the coming days and weeks as a potential second crisis looms.

“Rains are a few weeks away and could further impact our already limited access, with increased risk of flooding and landslides,” Dr Laker said. “We must act now to clear the mountains of rubble, begin vital repairs to water and sanitation infrastructure, and ensure people can earn a living and have access to cash, so that survivors don’t face a second emergency.”

International development partners can support the UN’s efforts to build Libya’s capacity for a coordinated, transparent, and conflict-sensitive recovery and reconstruction effort.

Libyans were vulnerable even before this tragedy. World Bank estimates show that the country experienced a 50 percent decline in GDP per capita between 2011 and 2020, and unemployment is high. The International Organization of Migration estimates that even before the storm Derna was hosting 2,801 displaced Libyans, as well as migrants from neighbouring countries.

UNDP’s crisis response revolves around alleviating further suffering and reducing further dependence on humanitarian and emergency assistance.


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