Sunday, October 1, 2023

Floods in Libya | Chaos, corruption and ignored warnings

Floods in Libya | Chaos, corruption and ignored warnings (Cairo) The warnings were clear, but they were not heeded.

Samy Magdy Associated Press

Experts have long warned that flooding poses a significant danger to the two dams designed to protect nearly 90,000 people in northeastern Libya. They have repeatedly called for immediate maintenance of the two structures, located upstream from the coastal city of Derna. But successive governments in this North African country mired in chaos have not reacted.

“In the event of a major flood, the consequences will be disastrous for the inhabitants of the valley and the city,” wrote Abdelwanees Ashoor, a professor of civil engineering, in a study published last year in the journal Sabha University Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences.

The warnings came true in the early hours of September 11, when residents of Derna were awakened by loud explosions before floods swept through the Mediterranean city. They discovered that two dams had failed, releasing a two-story-high wall of water that caused destruction and swept entire neighborhoods into the sea.

The deluge proved fatal to thousands of people in seconds, flattening apartment buildings and washing away roads and bridges.

The death toll varies among government officials and aid agencies. The Libyan Red Crescent said at least 11,300 people had been killed and another 10,000 were missing. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which had already reported the same number of deaths, now cites much lower figures: around 4,000 people killed and 9,000 missing.

Eastern Libya’s Health Minister Othman Abduljaleel revealed that at least 3,283 bodies were buried overnight from Sunday to Monday. He did not say how many bodies had been recovered in total.

Negligence and corruption are common in Libya, a country of about 7 million people that depends on proven reserves of oil and natural gas. In 2022, the country ranked 171my out of 180 in the transparency index established by Transparency International.

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The North African nation has been in chaos since 2011 when the NATO-backed Arab Spring uprising toppled dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who was later assassinated.

Since then, the country has been divided between two rival administrations: one, in the west, supported by a set of armed groups and illegal militias, and the other, in the east, allied with the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, commanded by the powerful General Khalifa Hifter.

The dams, Abou Mansour and Derna were built by a Yugoslav construction company in the 1970s on Wadi Derna, which divides the city. Abu Mansour, located about 15 kilometers from the city, was 74 meters high and could hold up to 22.5 million cubic meters of water. The Derna Dam, also known as Belad, is much closer to the city and could hold 1.5 million cubic meters of water.

The dams, built from clay, rocks, and soil, were intended to protect the city from flash floods, which are not uncommon in the region. The water collected behind the dams was used to irrigate crops downstream.

“The two dams had not been maintained for many years, despite the repeated floods that hit the city in the past,” said Saleh Emhanna, a geology researcher at the University of Ajdabia, Libya. They were in ruins. »

The dams suffered extensive damage during a severe storm that hit the region in 1986, and more than a decade later a study commissioned by the Libyan government found cracks in their structures, Libya’s attorney general, al-Sediq al-Sour, later said. Friday.

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

“I want to reassure citizens: those who have committed mistakes or negligence, prosecutors will certainly take firm action, initiate criminal proceedings against them, and bring them to justice,” Al-Sour thundered.

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In 2021, a report by a public audit agency indicated that the two dams had not been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million for this purpose in 2012 and 2013. No works were carried out in the region and the agency The audit team blamed the Ministry of Public Works and Natural Resources for not canceling the contract and awarding it to a company capable of carrying out the work.

In 2007, a Turkish company was contracted to maintain the two dams and build another one between them. The company Arsel Construction indicates on its website that it completed its works in November 2012.

Arsenal is one of dozens of Turkish companies that had projects worth more than $15 billion in Libya before the 2011 uprising. Many of these companies fled the Libyan chaos before returning in the past two years, particularly when the Turkish government intervened to help Tripoli. The Israel-based government repelled an attack by General Hifter’s forces in 2019.

Arsel did not respond to an email seeking additional comment on the two dams. It appears that a third dam was never built, as recent satellite photographs show.

In anticipation of Mediterranean Storm Daniel, authorities had also sent contradictory messages. They imposed a curfew in Derna and other areas in the east. Derna Municipality posted statements on its website urging residents to evacuate coastal areas for fear of rising water levels.

However, many residents reported receiving text messages on their phones urging them not to leave their homes.

Floods have devastated Derna and authorities estimate that almost a quarter of the city has been washed away. This devastation reflects the intensity of the storm, but also the vulnerability of Libya. The country’s infrastructure has been largely neglected despite its oil wealth.

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Mr Al-Sour, the attorney general, said prosecutors would investigate local authorities in Derna as well as previous governments. He appointed investigators from different parts of the country to carry out the investigation.

The government of eastern Libya has suspended the mayor of Derna, Abdel-Moneim al-Gaithi, pending an investigation into the disaster. The mayor did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Since 2014, eastern Libya has been under the control of General Hifter and his forces. The rival government based in the capital Tripoli controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. None tolerate dissent.

Activists are calling for an international investigation, fearing that a local probe would not be fruitful in a country largely governed by armed groups and militias. The “predatory” behavior of these groups and militias has led to “the misappropriation of Libyan state funds and the deterioration of institutions and infrastructure,” according to a report by the UN group of experts.

According to Transparency International, Libya has suffered from weak public institutions, internal conflict and deep instability, allowing corruption to spread, with little or no check on public sector abuses.

An online petition signed in recent days by hundreds of people, including human rights groups and Libyan NGOs, says an independent international committee is needed to “uncover the causes of this catastrophe” and hold those responsible accountable.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said an investigation into the disaster would face significant challenges as it could reach senior Libyan officials in western and eastern Libya.

Such an investigation “could potentially reach the highest levels of accountability,” he predicted. “This presents a unique challenge. »

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