A decade of political turmoil in Libya has had a catastrophic impact on the environment. The heavily polluted coastline is affecting biodiversity. In the 13 years since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has become a byword for the perils of Western military intervention.

The country’s political dysfunction and on-and-off civil war have consumed most of the attention that the international community dedicates to Libya, even as the environmental issues that stem from these problems grow worse and go all but unaddressed.

Libya’s hundreds of kilometres of coastline — the launchpad for boats carrying African migrants to Europe and Libyan oil to the rest of the world —offers a prime example.

“Amid the countless immediate political challenges confronting Libya’s fractious leaders, longer-term objectives like environmental protection and ocean conservation rarely receive priority. Yet the consequences of inaction have already begun to manifest”

As Libya’s duelling governments and allied militias compete for control of the country, pollution has flooded the coast. In 2021, authorities in the Libyan capital of Tripoli had to close a range of nearby beaches because of pollution that included cans, plastic bags, plastic bottles, and raw sewage.

Libya’s environmental catastrophe

Abdelbasset al-Miri, a local official, described the episode as “catastrophic” at the time even as it represented just one instance of the environmental issues that have battered the Libyan coast in recent years.

A 2021 investigation by the Conflict and Environment Observatory suggested that Libya’s national oil company tried to downplay the extent of an offshore oil spill near the Libyan-Tunisian border that spread for dozens of kilometres.

That same year, the Conflict and Environment Observatory reported that a desalination plant in the coastal Libyan city of Derna was leaking oil into the sea, noting the potential impact on “an important feeding and nesting area for turtles, seabirds and fish” and “regionally important seagrass beds.”

The pollution presents an imminent threat to the wildlife of the Libyan coast, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature, better known as “the IUCN,” last year called “one of several hotspots of marine and coastal biodiversity in the Mediterranean.”

That January, the IUCN convened a workshop on ocean conservation at which Libya’s Tripoli-based environmental ministry pledged to establish and reinforce a number of protected areas along the coast.

However the workshop failed to address some of the more obvious challenges with enforcement. One of the proposed conservation areas, for example, sits in the east of Libya, where the Libyan National Army — a rival of the regime in Tripoli — holds sway.


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