Climate Change

In Derna, politicians are to blame

Climate change played a part in the flood—but political leaders must invest in better infrastructure and emergency responses to avert future deaths

October 06, 2023
Catastrophe: Search teams comb streets and wrecked buildings to look for bodies in Derna, Libya
Catastrophe: Search teams comb streets and wrecked buildings to look for bodies in Derna, Libya

When the dust settles, the number of people killed, injured or missing as a result of the horrific flood in Libya and the earthquake in the Atlas mountains of Morocco will have risen to tens of thousands, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who lost their livelihoods. 

Regional media reports and government officials (and we have two competing authorities in Libya—equally failing) have largely blamed nature for the catastrophes. And it is true that a government cannot stop an earthquake, and extreme weather events such as the storm that hit Libya are closely linked to the changing climate. But we cannot only hide behind nature and fate. This would mean obfuscating the responsibility of our authorities to prepare for major disasters, account for their failure to address the aftermath, and honestly deal with their contribution to the growing intensity and frequency of extreme natural phenomena.  

Simply put, humans bear a significant responsibility for the loss of life in the Derna floods and, to a smaller extent, the Atlas earthquake. 

The inadequacy of building codes in Morocco—as in Turkey, which was devastated by other earthquakes in February this year—contributed to the large number of deaths. The earthquake that killed nearly 3,000 people on 8th September was the strongest in the area over 120 years. Its epicentre was in rugged and relatively poor regions of southern Morocco that have long suffered from poor infrastructure in terms of roads, healthcare and rescue services. Had been there minimally adequate services in this area, and better access to them, fewer people may have been killed. Instead, many villages were wiped out. Survivors spent days digging through the rubble with basic tools and their own hands attempting to rescue loved ones buried beneath. It took a long time, days in some cases, for rescuers to reach them. 

In Derna, the decision to build so many high-rise apartment blocks in a flood-threatened valley, and the failure to maintain the protective dams up in the hills to the south of the city, also proved fatal. Two days after the Atlas earthquake, the walls of two dams protecting Derna in eastern Libya collapsed, as a result of both poor maintenance and unprecedented rainfall when Storm Daniel, an unusually intense storm, hit the area. Hundreds of tons of water rushed, in a river that was at points 20 metres or 100 metres wide, through what is a dry valley most of the year. The World Health Organisation now estimates that more than 12,500 people were killed when buildings and infrastructure were swept away. 

The Derna and Abu Mansour dams were constructed approximately 50 years ago and had badly needed maintenance for a long time. If there had been regular government functions in war-torn Libya, the relevant municipal authorities in Derna and the de facto government that controls east Libya might have paid attention to several warnings by Libyan hydrologist Abdul Wanis Ashour. In a paper published last year, he argued that if the dams were not urgently fixed, Derna could be hit by a catastrophic flood. “The state knew of this well, whether through experts in the Public Water Commission or the foreign companies that came to assess the dam,” he told Reuters after the storm hit. 

Storm Daniel hit Greece too, but it affected Greece and Libya differently. The Greek province of Thessaly received 1.5 years of rain in just one day, and the ensuing floods killed 15 people and wreaked havoc with the infrastructure and the agricultural fields. But when Derna received about 414mm of rain in one day—an amount that it should get in nine months—the loss of lives and livelihoods was dramatically worse. The presence and effective implementation of national policies for preparedness and mitigation made a huge difference between the two countries. 

Mediterranean storms happen regularly and, in the past, have not usually reached the severity of destructive tropical hurricanes, as Storm Daniel did. However, global warming has altered climate patterns in the region, raising the temperature of the Mediterranean sea by two degrees over the past 40 years, to record levels this summer. This led to rapid evaporation of seawater, increased humidity and significantly higher rainfall rates during storms—as was precisely the case with Daniel. A recent report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted a shift in the southern Mediterranean storms, with them becoming less frequent but more intense, sometimes even becoming destructive hurricanes.

Global warming is not a single country issue. To tackle it, there must be more effective international cooperation—first of all to cut emissions and slow the heating of the earth. But maybe the EU, which has been allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to African countries to prevent unregulated migration across the Mediterranean, could also divert some funds to help countries prepare for disasters and respond swiftly in their aftermaths.

Preparedness reduces the impact of disasters, which fuel desperation among the impoverished in Africa to seek better lives through migration across the Mediterranean. Instead of dealing with the root causes, the EU and various European governments probably prefer to deal with the symptoms: build a fence, stop the boats. Even worse, some funds and political support go to unsavoury regimes and militias in north Africa and beyond, thus indirectly supporting human rights violations, corruption and the well-documented abuse of migrants. 

Populist European politicians are probably not that much different from the irresponsible Libyan parliamentarians who solemnly shrugged off any human accountability, saying that what happened was an act of fate or an act of God. Even worse, the soldiers of the “government” which controls eastern Libya have reportedly delayed aid convoys or even seized supplies. 

Politicians on both sides compete for who is more cynical and short-sighted.