How climate change became a highly charged term in Libya

Libyans say climate change isn’t an excuse for the amount of neglect that happened with the maintenance of the dams

How climate change became a highly charged term in Libya

When the heavy downpours started in Libya as Storm Daniel battered the country in September, people in Derna felt that the city’s two dams would protect them from devastating floods, and there was no concern to leave their homes.

But it wasn’t just rainfall. The devastating floods stemmed from the chain of mountains surrounding the northeastern coastal city and not from a tsunami in the Mediterranean.

The worst floods in the country’s history left more than 5,000 people dead and at least another 10,000 people are still missing. Entire neighbourhoods on the bank of the raging river were swept away. Climate change clearly played a key role in the collapse of the city’s two dams built in the 1970s to protect it from flooding.

The rainfall was unusually severe — the equivalent of a year’s rainfall in just 24 hours.

But there’s a consensus among many locals in the capital, Tripoli and elsewhere that years of negligence and political infighting are the main culprits and have greatly contributed to the severity of the unprecedented disaster.

Oil-rich Libya has been riven by political infighting, corruption and external interference since a 2011 uprising that toppled and later led to the death of the long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Attempts stretching back a decade to form a unified functioning government have failed, and instead, two rival governments backed by their own military factions are based in Tripoli in the west and Tobruk in the east.

Now the two rival governments have tried to politically exploit the extreme weather event, says Moussa Tihosai, a Libyan analyst and researcher based in Tripoli.

“The political exploitation of the Derna crisis began from day one. But both sides then backed down because of embarrassment. Every government wants to undertake reconstruction and compete in rescue and relief operations to emerge as the saviour. In addition, the security services on both sides want to appear as a hero,” Mr Tihosai told Al Majalla.

One week after the torrential rain wiped off around a quarter of Derna, many locals took to the streets demanding the removal of those in power in the East and the West, accusing officials of political and financial corruption.

Venting their anger at all officials, they singled out the speaker of the eastern-based Libyan parliament, Aguila Saleh, as he framed the disaster in a religious context.

In the political and information war, the climate has been amplified and exploited by politicians, says Mr Tihosai.

Politicians came out to the public as preachers, citing religious texts to portray the matter as destiny, and no one could have done anything to stop it.

"Politicians came out to the public as preachers, citing religious texts to portray the matter as destiny, and no one could have done anything to stop it. But the people know their religion better and know that many things could have been done over the past 12 years of war to greatly mitigate the natural disasters. But it seems that the maintenance of dams was not a priority," he said.

"There is popular discontent. There must be a unified framework between the two governments under the auspices of the United Nations to coordinate aid and prevent corruption. They should form an international monitoring committee. There is currently chaos in the crisis management planning process. The international factor is very crucial."

Time bomb 

There are 16 dams in Libya. The dam construction began in the 1960s under former leader Muammar Gaddafi. The first and largest dam was established south of the capital Tripoli, the Wadi Mejenin dam, which became operational in 1972. Its name is an Arabic metaphor meaning the 'crazy wadi or stream'.

The dams were based on scientific studies conducted by engineers from the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Germany and Italy. They are not hydrologic dams but are built to protect cities and store rainwater.

Authorities in both of Libya's rival governments had blamed one another for the human tragedy. The west says the east has known in advance of the approaching storm, and the two dams in Derna were at risk of collapse and the authorities there could have taken steps to be well-prepared for the disaster.

But the spokesman for the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli, Mohammed Hamouda, says the two governments have been competing with one another as a rare show of unity in supporting the people of Derna and other affected cities in the East in their ordeal.

Wadi Derna flows into seven other valleys, so the amount of water cannot be withstood by an earthen dam. The water rose to 27 and 30 metres. It was like a tsunami. 

Spokesman for Libyan Government of National Unity Mohammed Hamouda,

"A higher committee was formed, headed by the Minister of Local Government, and I am a member of this committee. We went to the eastern region. We are working on two tracks: relief, restoring services, and reconstruction," Mr Hamouda told Al Majalla.

"If there is any competition between the two governments, it is a competition to help the Libyans and save what can be saved. There is no East and West. The National Unity Government operates throughout Libyan territory. Its services reach everyone. Solid examples even before the Derna disaster took place: all schools operate according to a curriculum plan and timetable set by the unity government, hospitals, police stations - all agencies operate according to their higher administrations in Tripoli. All salaries are paid by the unity government, including members of the armed forces."

Mr Hamouda admits that citizens are upset over decades of neglect by not developing and maintaining dams across the country. But he argues that Libya is one of the most affected countries by climate change.

"When rain falls with this intensity within two hours, this is an exceptional matter. This has never happened before. Wadi Derna flows into seven other valleys, so the amount of water cannot be withstood by an earthen dam. The water rose to 27 and 30 metres. It was like a tsunami. You can't put the blame squarely on years of negligence," he said.

A Libyan man standing in an inundated area near a submerged vehicle in the wake of floods after the Mediterranean storm "Daniel" hit Libya's eastern city of Derna in September

One year before the disaster, an academic study by Libyan hydrologists in Sebha University warned Libyan officials that dams in Derna have a high vulnerability to collapse in sweeping floods.

Suleiman Saleh Al-Barouni, a former senior official at the Ministry of Water Resources, says Libya's dams have become a time bomb after what happened in Derna.

"They aren't fit for purpose. They did not achieve the main goal of protection and agricultural reclamation, as approximately 60% of the stored water evaporated. We did not benefit from them, neither agriculture nor nourishment of the underground reservoir. Everyone is afraid now in any area where there is a dam," he said.

Tripoli authorities have taken swift action to maintain the country's largest dam in the wake of the disaster. They invited Al Majalla and other media crew to see first-hand the repair and maintenance being carried out on the dam's gates and valley.

In the long term, storms like Daniel may reoccur in the not-too-distant future in an increasingly warming world that could likely bring more devastating floods in the Mediterranean region.

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