Libya: A country of vast wealth and tragic incompetence

Since 2011, efforts to fix the dams have been swept up by prevailing political divisions in the fractured nation. The result was a disaster of epic proportions killing thousands.

Libya: A country of vast wealth and tragic incompetence

In 2010, Muammar Gaddafi hosted an Arab summit at the Ouagadougou Conference Center in Sirte. The opulent marble halls and lofty corridors hosted bilateral and collective discussions among Arab leaders on regional and global issues.

What struck me most during that time in the seaside city, surrounded by verdant fields, was the remarkable fact that the cuisine consisting of fish, fruits, vegetables, and desserts served to the Arab leaders was not of Libyan or even Arab origin; it was actually Turkish.

A Turkish company hastily constructed the palatial accommodations where the guests resided during the two-day summit and provided a floating vessel, fulfilling the Libyan leader's desire to host the Arab Summit in his hometown.

Incredibly, Libya a nation awash in wealth and weapons did not have accommodations good enough to host Arab dignitaries. For Gaddafi, who had given himself the name "King of African Kings", planting olive trees, harvesting crops, encouraging fishing or building homes was not a priority.

But just how did these seemingly basic things fall off his radar?

The catastrophic floods that ripped Derna apart last week brought back these memories. Thousands of the city's residents were either entombed in the mud of a devastating flood or swept away by the treacherous waters into the Mediterranean Sea.

Origins of disaster

The origins of this disaster can actually be traced back to Gaddafi's era although it does not absolve those in authority after him.

Derna's modern history is marred by recurring floods, which can be traced back to the 1940s. Following Gaddafi's 1969 revolution, a Yugoslavian company was awarded a contract to construct two dams within the precincts of Derna in the 1970s.

Their primary purpose was to shield the city's inhabitants from the horrors of flooding. The Abu Mansour Dam is 13 kilometres from Derna, while the Al Bilad Dam is just one kilometre from the coastal metropolis.

These two dams in Libya bear a striking resemblance to those constructed in numerous Arab countries, including Syria and Egypt. They were essentially political projects initiated by friendly Eastern bloc nations to counter Western "imperialist" influence.

In 1998, the Libyan Dams Administration alerted the Gaddafi government to structural cracks in the two dams. An Italian consultancy firm recommended the construction of a third dam to alleviate the stress on them. However, influenced by shifting alliances, Tripoli opted to entrust the repair of the two dams to a Turkish company in 2007.

Repair plans 'swept' away

But following Gaddafi's overthrow and assassination in 2011, efforts to fix these dams were swept up by prevailing political and geographical divisions in the fractured nation, resulting in an internationally recognised government in the West and another rival government in the East.

Following Gaddafi's overthrow and assassination in 2011, efforts to fix these dams were swept up by prevailing political and geographical divisions in the fractured nation.

Despite the animosity between these two warring governments, Tripoli and Benghazi managed to set aside their differences to strike a deal that ensured continued oil production at approximately 1.5 million barrels per day. (Libya's oil reserves are the largest in Africa.)

However, while war profiteers found common ground on oil, they remained at odds over water issues. Even though a budget was allocated to repair the two dams in 2011, the plans were never implemented despite repeated warnings of an impending disaster.

The casualties in Derna are the tragic outcome of decades of neglect and division. This is the regrettable situation facing Derna's survivors who, despite the country's vast wealth, now face the stark choice of dying of thirst or drinking contaminated water.

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