Rescuers and relatives sit in front of collapsed buildings in Derna, Libya, September 18, 2023 (Muhammad J. Elalwany/AP)
In the early hours of September 11, residents of Derna in north-east Libya woke to the sound of loud explosions. After more than a decade of conflict – initially between the Qaddafi regime and local factions, then among militias fighting for rule – they were used to the noise.
But this was different. This was the breaking of two dams upstream towards the Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain) overwhelmed by the rain surge from Storm Daniel.
A seven-meter wave thundered down Wadi Derna through the city, washing whole suburbs into the sea. Soon, thousands of people would be dead and tens of thousands missing.
But even as aid organizations and foreign medical services were trying to organize rescue and recovery operations, Elseddik Haftar – eldest son of the regional warlord General Khalifa Haftar – chose the moment to announce he was planning to stand as a candidate in the next Presidential election.
That moment is a metaphor for the plight of Derna – and for Libya itself: a cataclysm of climate change, neglect and conflict, made worse by one family’s relentless quest for power.
The Medicane Arrives
The meteorologists first used “medicane” in the 1980s: a Mediterranean storm with a hurricane’s cloud patterns, spiralling around an “eye”.
The phenomenon was born out of the warming ocean waters. As they gained heat, so the storms gathered strength and frequency. They hovered longer, dropping more rain over coastal areas.
The medicane christened Daniel arose from those summer waters. By last Sunday, its winds of 70 to 80 km/hour carried torrential precipitation of 150 to 240 mm (5.9 to 9.5 inches), with record daily rainfall of 414.1 mm (16.3 inches) in Al-Bayda, less than 100 km from Derna.
Even the sturdiest dams would have struggled with eight months of rain in one day — and the dams on the Wadi Derna were far from sturdy.
The Failure of the Dams
After a series of floods from the Wadi Derna, with serious episodes in 1941, 1959, and 1968, a Yugoslav company built two dams in the 1970s. The upper dam, the Al-Bilad, had a storage capacity of 1.5 million cubic metres of water. The lower dam, the Abu Mansour, was constructed 1 km from Derna with a storage capacity of 22.5 million cubic metres. Both a core of compacted clay with a carapace of stone.
The likely scenario is that the Al-Bilad was overwhelmed by the rain surge. A rush of water and sediment picked up speed, mixing with more water in the channel to collapse the Abu Mansour. With only 1 km to go, there was no room or time for the 7-meter (23-foot) wave to dissipate before the city.
It’s not that there hadn’t been ample warning of the dangers facing Derna. In November 2022, hydrologist Abdelwanees Ashoor of Omar Al-Mukhtar University in nearby Bayda published research that showed that the barriers needed urgent attention if they were to hold for much longer. As Derna’s deputy mayor, Ahmed Madroud, acknowledged after the flood hit: “The dams have not been maintained since 2002.”
The Punishment of the Warlord
That lack of maintenance stretches back to the authoritarian years of Muammar Qaddafi. Factions in eastern Libya, including Derna, had chafed at Qaddafi’s rule and his base among western tribes since he took power in 1969. He responded by claiming more executive authority and depriving the region of resources and investment. This was compounded by an increasing emphasis on Libya’s major cities rather than the arid agricultural areas of the east. When young men from Derna joined the Islamist insurgency in the Green Mountains, Qaddafi cut off water amid detentions, torture, and executions.
Qaddafi was toppled and executed in 2011 after his deadly repression failed to quell protests. But his demise brought no relief and no stability for the east. Factions defied the proclaimed national government in Tripoli and vied for power, with Gen. Khalifa Haftar gathering the most strength inside the country and from foreign allies such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and France..
Today Libya is divided between the UN-recognized “Government of National Unity” of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in Tripoli, and the eastern administration in Benghazi of Haftar-backed Prime Minister Ossama Hamad and — for a veneer of credibility — a Parliament in Tobruk.
Both sides have put a priority on building up armies and militias rather than the day-to-day necessities of infrastructure and services.
For Derna, there has been additional punishment. Hafter besieged the city from 2014 after it was seized by Islamist militants. He finally captured it in 2018, but has been accused of reprisals against civilians and political opponents. Residents of have not given a welcome reception to Haftar’s troops — and have been given little reconstruction and development in return.
Instead, Haftar’s Military Investment Authority was established as a family vehicle, exploiting industries and resources across the board, including agriculture, energy and construction. Deforestation above Derna accelerated, with trees cut down for holiday homes and businesses and for sale of the wood as charcoal.
Without the tree cover, the risk from irregular patterns of rainfall increased. In late 2020, flooding displaced thousands from Al-Bayda. The removal of the forests’ cooling effect has led to rising temperatures, heat waves, and wildfires.
Exploiting the Disaster
This neglect of both populace and infrastructure was compounded as Daniel approached this month. With no clear organization in place, Derna’s official and Hafter’s personnel issued contradictory instructions. The city’s mayor, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, said he had ordered an evacuation; however, other officials ordered a curfew and texted residents to stay in place.
After the city was flooded, Haftar tried to give the impression of being in control with a semblance of care for the stricken populace. The media were told that Brig. Gen. Saddam Haftar, the son of the leader, was overseeing rescue and recovery efforts. His father was supposedly “assessing the needs of rescue crews and ensuring they have the necessary capabilities and resources to conduct operations safely and efficiently”.
But any appearance of order or organisation was punctured when journalists asked a relief doctor what he knew about the death toll and he broke down, admitting he didn’t know how many of his fellow citizens had perished.
Nor does anyone else. After years of strife in Derna, there is little in the way of administration that might collate the information. The Turkish Red Crescent has estimated the toll at more than 11,000 with a further 10,000 people missing. Meanwhile, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs assessed the number of deaths at 3,958.
What it is certain is that a quarter of all buildings in Derna have been affected: almost 900 buildings destroyed, more than 200 partly damaged, and almost 400 completely submerged in mud.
That knowledge is not leading to contrition, let alone responsibility. Instead, as medical teams, volunteers, and even Boy Scouts tried to help, Haftar toured Derna last Friday in a “PR stunt” that froze the efforts for an hour of search and rescue teams made up mainly of volunteers.
Emadeddin Badi, Libya analyst with the Atlantic Council, summarized that Haftar and his entourage were “creating bottlenecks rather than being conducive to the provision of relief”.
Meanwhile in Paris, Elseddik Haftar was furthering his political ambitions, telling journalists: “I think I have all the means to relieve and stabilise Libya, and put in place the cohesion and unity of Libyans.”
He has the blessing of his warlord father. In 2021, the general announced he would run for the Presidency, but he stepped aside in January 2023 to allow one of his sons to pursue that position and carry on the family’s business.
And in that business model, the people of Derna are expendable.