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Friday, May 17, 2024

In Libya, warnings of Derna dam failure were ignored

The warnings were ignored despite their clarity. Experts had long cautioned about the flood risks posed to two dams near Derna, which were designed to safeguard nearly 90,000 residents in northeast Libya. They had consistently called for urgent maintenance of these structures, situated just uphill from the coastal city of Derna. However, successive governments in the tumultuous North African nation remained unresponsive.

The grim predictions became a devastating reality on September 11, when Derna’s residents were awakened by loud explosions, followed by a deluge that pounded the Mediterranean city. It was discovered that both dams had ruptured, unleashing a massive wall of water that demolished entire neighborhoods and swept them out to sea. This catastrophic event claimed the lives of over 11,300 people, including foreigners, while more than 10,000 remained missing a week later, according to the Libyan Red Crescent and the United Nations.

Neglect and corruption have permeated Libya, a nation of approximately 7 million people with abundant proven oil and natural gas reserves. As of 2022, the country ranked 171st out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption perception index.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, backed by NATO, that ousted longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been embroiled in chaos. The country has split into rival administrations: one in the west supported by various lawless armed groups and militias, and the other in the east aligned with the self-declared Libyan National Army, commanded by the powerful Gen. Khalifa Hiftar.

The two dams, Abu Mansour and Derna, constructed by a Yugoslav company in the 1970s, were positioned above Wadi Derna, dividing the city. While Abu Mansour was 14 kilometers (8.6 miles) from the city, standing at 74 meters (243 feet) in height and capable of holding 22.5 million cubic meters of water, the Derna dam, also known as Belad, was much closer to the city and could hold 1.5 million cubic meters of water.

These dams, composed of clay, rocks, and earth, were intended to shield the city from flash floods, which were not uncommon in the region. The water retained behind the dams was used for downstream irrigation.

“Both dams had not been maintained for many years, despite repeated floods that struck the city in the past,” said Saleh Emhanna, a geological researcher with the University of Ajdabia in Libya. “They were dilapidated.”

In 1986, a severe storm caused significant damage to the dams, and over a decade later, a government-commissioned study revealed cracks and fissures in their structures, as stated by Libya’s general prosecutor, al-Sediq al-Sour.

During a press conference in the devastated city, al-Sour assured citizens that prosecutors would thoroughly investigate the dam collapses and the allocation of maintenance funds.

A 2021 report by a state-run audit agency disclosed that despite allocating more than $2 million for maintenance in 2012 and 2013, no work was carried out on the two dams. The audit agency blamed the Ministry of Works and Natural Resources for failing to cancel the contract and award it to a company willing to perform the necessary maintenance.

In 2007, a Turkish firm, Arsel Construction Company Ltd., was contracted to conduct maintenance on the two dams and construct an additional dam in between. The company claimed on its website to have completed its work in November 2012. Notably, Arsel was one of numerous Turkish companies with projects worth over $15 billion in Libya before the 2011 uprising.

Many of these companies had left Libya due to the chaos but returned in recent years, particularly when the Turkish government intervened to support the Tripoli-based government against an attack by Hiftar’s forces in 2019.

Arsel did not respond to inquiries seeking further information about the two dams, and recent satellite images show no evidence of a third dam being built.

In anticipation of the Mediterranean storm Daniel, authorities issued conflicting messages. They imposed a curfew in Derna and other eastern areas and published statements urging coastal area residents to evacuate due to potential sea surges. However, many residents received text messages urging them to stay at home.

The flooding left Derna in ruins, with officials estimating that up to a quarter of the city had been obliterated. This destruction not only underscored the storm’s ferocity but also highlighted Libya’s vulnerability, as the country’s infrastructure had suffered from widespread neglect despite its oil wealth.

Al-Sour, the chief prosecutor, pledged to investigate local authorities in Derna and previous governments, and he appointed investigators from various parts of the country for this purpose.

In eastern Libya, the government suspended Derna’s mayor, 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 Hifter’s control, while the rival government in Tripoli controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. Dissent is not tolerated by either administration.

Activists are calling for an international investigation, fearing that a local inquiry would be futile in a country largely governed by armed groups and militias. According to a U.N. panel of experts, these groups and militias have engaged in “predatory” behavior, resulting in the misappropriation of Libyan state funds and the deterioration of institutions and infrastructure.

Libya’s weak public institutions, internal conflicts, and deep instability have allowed corruption to flourish with little to no oversight of public sector abuses, according to Transparency International.

An online petition, signed by hundreds of individuals, including Libyan rights groups and NGOs, calls for an independent international committee to uncover the causes of the catastrophe and hold those responsible accountable.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, noted that an investigation into the disaster would face substantial challenges, as it could implicate high-ranking officials in both western and eastern Libya.

Such an inquiry, he stated, “might potentially reach into the highest ranks of responsibility,” posing a unique challenge.

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