Libya’s deadly dam collapse was decades in the making

Libya’s deadly dam collapse was decades in the making

With thousands of people dead and tens of thousands more left homeless by floods as a storm burst through the dams next to the east Libyan city of Derna, FRANCE 24 looks back at the years of violence and neglect that left the city ill-prepared for the unprecedented natural disasters of the climate crisis.

Towards dawn on Monday, September 11, the waters of the Wadi Derna river burst through the dams that had been built to hold them at bay. Swollen with unheard-of rainfall dragged across the Mediterranean by Storm Daniel, the river crashed through the coastal city of Derna in Libya’s east, killing thousands of people and leaving entire neighbourhoods in ruins. Members of the country’s eastern administration have put the death toll at more than 5,000 people, with 10,000 more still missing. Dozens of bodies continue to wash up along the coast. 

Liz Stephens, a professor in climate risks and resilience at the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, said that the dams’ collapse had been catastrophic.

“While Storm Daniel brought exceptional rainfall totals to eastern Libya, the tragic loss of life will have been largely due to the failure of dams, with a sudden release of water providing little time to reach safety, and the entrained debris adding to the violent force of the floodwaters,” she told FRANCE 24.

‘The consequences will be disastrous’

The two Wadi Derna dams were built between 1973 and 1977 by Yugoslav construction company Hidrotehnika-Hidroenergetika, now based in Serbia, as part of an infrastructure network that would irrigate surrounding fields while supplying Derna and nearby communities with much-needed water. The two dams, dubbed Derna and Mansour, are described on the company’s site as clay-filled embankment dams with a height of 75 meters and 45 meters respectively. The Derna dam’s storage capacity is listed as 18 million cubic meters of water, while the smaller Mansour dam has a capacity of just 1.5 million cubic meters. 

A research paper published in November 2022 by Omar al-Mukhtar University hydrologist Abdelwanees A. R Ashoor warned that the dams holding back the seasonal waterway – known as a wadi – needed urgent attention, citing a number of floods that had repeatedly struck the river basin since the Second World War. 

Read moreA global problem’: Libya floods a wake-up call to dangers of climate change and old infrastructure

“The results that were obtained demonstrate that the studied area is at risk of flooding,” he wrote. “Therefore, immediate measures must be taken for routine maintenance of the dams, because in the event of a big flood, the consequences will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city.”

But Derna Deputy Mayor Ahmed Madroud told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that the dams had not been properly cared for in more than two decades.

“The dams have not been maintained since 2002, and they are not big,” he said.

“When the river overflowed its banks, then it just took all the buildings with it, and the families that were in it.”

Stephens, from the University of Reading, said that closer monitoring of the dams could have proved vital.

“It is too early to determine whether the failure of the dam was caused by a lack of maintenance or whether it was not designed to be resilient to the exceptional amount of rainfall that fell,” she said. “Monitoring of the condition of the dam could have perhaps supported early warning of potential failure, and precautionary evacuations of the people in harm’s way.”

Although Stephens stressed that it was still unclear to what extent even a well-maintained dam of the same proportions could have withstood the hurricane-strength storm’s onslaught, she said that such extreme weather events would only become more common as the climate crisis worsened. 

“Without the dams in place the impacts of the flooding would have been far less catastrophic, but such infrastructure is needed to enable consistent water supply in semi-arid regions such as this,” she said. “This infrastructure needs to be designed to withstand even the rarest of events, and we need to find a way to estimate what magnitudes of rainfall are physically plausible in our changing climate.”

Arrested development

Asma Khalifa, the co-founder of peace-building organisation the Khalifa Ihler Institute and a doctoral researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, argued that decades of government neglect and political conflict in Libya played a large part in the dams’ deterioration.

“Derna and the surrounding areas are in the eastern region, which has had lots of conflicts with [former leader Muammar] Gaddafi’s regime,” she told FRANCE 24. “It’s always had an opposition. The grievance of the east of the region is that centralisation has destroyed them – which is largely true, for the population if not for the authorities.”

Khalifa said that Libya’s east had been starved of investment by Gaddafi since the army captain seized power from King Idris I in a bloodless military coup in 1969. Gaddafi was long criticised in the country’s east for building his power base among the tribal groups that lived in and around the western city of Tripoli, forming the foundation of a patronage network that helped sustain the leader’s rule for more than 40 years.

It was this festering resentment that was partly responsible for the first Arab Spring protests in 2011 across the eastern cities of Benghazi and Derna that would, under the cover of NATO forces’ devastating aerial bombardment of Gaddafi’s military, pave the way for the colonel’s bloody fall from power.

Read moreIn pictures: Libya’s Derna counts its dead after catastrophic floods

Khalifa said that this neglect, along with a widening urban-rural divide that channeled more and more investment into Libya’s major cities at the expense of its arid agricultural regions, had left much of the east’s already-lacking infrastructure increasingly unfit for purpose.

“Gaddafi was never interested in developing the country, ” she said. “In terms of infrastructure the country is weak, no matter how wealthy it is. Then you have a decade of armed conflict, where two governments are unable to govern the entire country, and have only been interested in funding and creating military groups that will keep them in power.”

A history of violence

With Gaddafi driven from power, Libya is now divided between rival administrations in east and west: in Tripoli, the UN-recognised government of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, and in Benghazi, the administration of Prime Minister Ossama Hamad, backed by a Tobruk-based House of Representatives and powerful military commander Khalifa Haftar. 

This last figure is intimately familiar with the devastated city of Derna. Haftar laid siege to the city after it was seized by Islamist militants in 2014 amid Libya’s descent into factional fighting that followed Gaddafi’s fall, eventually capturing the city in 2018. Haftar has been accused of overseeing brutal reprisals throughout the city after it fell to his Libyan National Army, targeting civilians and political opponents as well as armed militants. Residents of the restive city have reportedly had little trust in Haftar’s troops – and the eastern administration it supports – in the years since.

With rescue workers still struggling through the flooded streets in search for survivors, some are hoping that the sheer scale of the catastrophe can bring Libya’s competing factions together to coordinate the humanitarian response. Others are less optimistic.

Khalifa said that Libya would be have little chance of withstanding the next climate catastrophe without first bringing an end to the years of fighting that have ripped the country in two.

“It’s a large and wealthy country with a small population who has been ravaged by a decade-long civil war and different armed conflicts that could easily have been prevented,” she said. “And there are more than enough resources to be prepared for such a crisis, and to be prepared for climate change.”