Flood-stricken Libya faces yearslong recovery
The nation’s rival governments and history of conflict complicate relief efforts
Outside the coastal city of Derna, Libya, last Friday, dozens of men in white hazmat suits or long tunics stood facing several bodies wrapped in black bags. They said an Islamic prayer for the victims of flash floods in the majority-Muslim North African nation. Then they buried the remains in a mass grave.
Local authorities ordered the quick mass burials as a precaution against the spread of disease. The World Health Organization estimated on Tuesday that about 4,000 people have died after Storm Daniel’s overwhelming rainfall swelled the Wadi Derna river and caused two dams to burst on Sept. 11. Besides the extent of the destruction, Libya’s political tension poses challenges for the recovery process.
In Derna, a city of between 100,000 and 200,000, at least 30,000 people have been displaced. Strong currents washed away entire neighborhoods, leaving behind mud-covered, crumbled buildings and fractured roads. Flooding from the storm extended to other cities, including Benghazi, the second-most populous city in Libya, located about 160 miles west of Derna. More than 880,000 people have been affected by the floods, according to the United Nations.
An overall lack of coordination has slowed Libya’s disaster relief, noted Ronnie Lappin, who has helped coordinate Dutch groups to provide aid to Libya. Authorities of the African nation have asked the former director of Logos Hope, a ship that sells books worldwide, to help seek flood relief assistance from Western nations. Lappin, a Scot, became acquainted with Libyan officials after Logos Hope’s cultural visit to Benghazi in 2022.
The political tension in Libya—which has been split between two rival governments after a 2011 uprising ousted longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi—has complicated relief efforts. The Benghazi government, which is allied with Gen. Khalifa Hifter of the Libyan National Army, rules eastern Libya, including Derna. The U.N.-recognized Tripoli government controls western Libya. It also manages most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects.
Authorities in the eastern region have blocked Tripoli government officials from entering Derna, according to Claudia Gazzini, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Libya. And while Tripoli authorities have sent aid, “there is no public recognition of this cooperation,” said Gazzini, who is currently in Libya.
Officials have isolated parts of Derna as an attempt to contain potential disease outbreaks, but it is not clear why they barred one UN team from arriving in the city on Tuesday. At the same time, the UN teams that are already in Derna—including those in search and rescue efforts and emergency medical care—continue to operate, a UN spokeswoman said.
In general, few nongovernmental organizations have worked in eastern Libya due to difficulty in getting the proper permits, said Graeme Ogilvie, who directs Denmark-based DanChurchAid’s operations in Libya. His organization has been working in the country for 12 years, so it has staff in Benghazi and contacts with local authorities to be able to provide aid more readily. That’s in contrast to other groups that have to start from “sort of zero and build up,” he said.
DanChurchAid has supported search and rescue teams by supplying flashlights, trowels, helmets, and work gloves. It has also provided toiletries, blankets, cooking utensils, and disinfectants to internally displaced people.
Ogilvie envisions the next phase of aid later this year will include giving grants to communities for reconstruction, distributing heaters for winter, and providing psychosocial support.
Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Libyans are facing added risks from landmines and other explosive munitions that flood waters have shifted, the UN warned. The weapons were left over from years of conflict. As DanChurchAid has previously helped to remove explosives in Libya, Ogilvie said the group may again be involved and also relaunch its mine risk awareness program.
Libyans still reeling from the destruction are demanding accountability for the collapse of the dams. Libya’s general prosecutor, al-Sediq al-Sour, has pledged to investigate whether officials failed to maintain the structures that were built in the 1970s. A state-run audit agency reported in 2021 that authorities did not maintain the dams despite more than $2 million allocated for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.
Ogilvie said the country faces a long recovery. “When you look at the scale of devastation across the region and the amount of damage to different towns, it’s gonna be a few years,” he said.
—with additional reporting from Jenny Lind Schmitt
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