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Why were the floods in Libya so deadly?

Thousands of people have been killed and thousands more are missing in the floods, which survivors and experts say are not just a natural disaster.

Years of civil war, corruption and institutional neglect have left residents of the North African state at the mercy of the extreme weather conditions of Mediterranean Storm Daniel, as have authorities who “frankly had nothing but contempt for their people,” said Tarek Megerisi, a Libya expert and senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

Anger that had been brewing for a week turned into protests against local authorities, with the house of Derna’s ousted mayor set on fire.

Here’s how heavy rains became so deadly in Libya.

From livestreaming to leaking

The rain was getting heavier towards midnight, but residents of the Wadi Derna valley were confident that the dams would hold up, as they had before.

The two structures, Abu Mansour and Derna, were located just upriver from the Mediterranean coastal town and were intended to protect its nearly 90,000 residents.

People were accustomed to occasional flooding, and on September 10, even a rain heavy enough to fill the first dam did not raise the alarm.

“We are used to this… we saw the same scene in 2011 without a disaster happening,” said al-Sharif, who was broadcasting it all live on Facebook as the canal began to overflow.

Residents took videos of the rising water level, then returned home to dry off and sleep as the night grew darker and wetter.

But it soon became clear that it was not just a downpour.

“We started hearing screams in the streets. ‘Torrent! The torrent is coming! “So everyone went out to their balconies to watch, and we saw the torrent rushing through the streets with very great force,” al-Sharif said.

It was about 2:30 a.m., he remembers, and cars were lying overturned in the mud-covered streets. Thinking that the worst was over, people left to clean the roads.

Then “tragedy happened.”

Around 3 a.m., it was clear that both dams had failed under the influence of a second wave almost as high as the buildings in the neighborhood rushed towards the residents, who ran to take every possible height and catch the neighboring families to escape with them.

Some, like al-Sharif, were lucky to find their stairs just out of reach of the water that rose floor after floor behind them. After finally reaching the roof, he was shocked to see what was happening outside.

“The whole place was submerged in water… you can’t see anything but water,” he said.

“God had mercy on us,” al-Sharif said. “Our building survived, but the other buildings were completely destroyed. Carried away with the torrent as if they were biscuits.

Residents waited until 7 a.m. for the water to recede. Al-Sharif said he walked for two hours to find safety and help, harassed all the way by the overwhelming tragedy. “The smell of death spreads on all the roads,” he said.

But while for many residents the water caused death in Derna in a devastating and sudden influx, the floods were preceded by a litany of warnings that went unheeded.

Missed warnings

In a research paper published last year, hydrologist Abdelwanees Ashoor of Libya’s Omar Al-Mukhtar University warned that the Derna region “has a high potential for flood risk”, citing five floods that occurred have been produced there since 1942 and calling for immediate maintenance measures for the dams.

“In the event of a big flood, the consequences will be disastrous for the inhabitants of the valley and the city,” he writes in the Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences of Sebha University.

Some Libyan officials have also not refrained from criticizing the authorities.

The dams suffered extensive damage during a strong storm that hit the region in 1986, and more than a decade later a government-commissioned study found cracks and fissures in their structures, said last week the Attorney General of Libya, al-Sediq al-Sour. .

But the years passed as warnings piled up and restoration efforts failed to get off the ground or were abandoned in the chaos of the civil war.

At a news conference in the stricken city, al-Sour said prosecutors would investigate the collapse of the two dams, as well as the allocation of maintenance funds.

“I reassure citizens that whoever has committed mistakes or negligence, prosecutors will definitely take firm action, initiate criminal proceedings against him and subject him to trial,” he said.

Survivors have no doubt about what or who is to blame.

“The main cause of the disaster was the dam south of Derna, which had not received recent maintenance,” said Salem Mansour, 27, who lost his sister in the disaster. Speaking from the hospital in the nearby town of Tobruk, he said he was convinced that more could – and should – have been done to prevent this.

“The responsibility lies with successive corrupt governments in Libya, which have neglected the security of citizens,” he added.


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