The flooded Libyan city’s problems are compounded by a new disaster

(Reuters) – The Libyan town devastated by flooding this week came after a decade of chaos in Libya that brought infrastructure investment to a standstill and years of fighting on its own streets that sparked conflict between residents and local authorities led, particularly vulnerable to disasters.

Derna in eastern Libya was devastated when storm waters overwhelmed two dams early Monday morning, sending a torrent through the city center and washing entire neighborhoods into the sea.

It is not yet clear whether crumbling infrastructure or decisions by authorities contributed to the disaster and the enormous loss of thousands of lives. But the risks facing the city were recognized long before the disaster.

A scientist published an article in 2022 saying that repeated flooding threatened dams built in a wadi, a normally dry riverbed above the city, and that immediate maintenance was needed.

“If a major flood occurs, the outcome would be catastrophic for the people of the wadi and the city,” wrote hydrologist Abdelwanees AR Ashoor of Libya’s Omar Al-Mukhtar University.

Residents, whose trust in authorities had long been shaken by years of fighting and disputes, also said there was confusion about how to respond when Storm Daniel flooded the area.

“Some areas received instructions to evacuate, but some people did not respond,” resident Mustafa Salem told Reuters, without giving details of who sent the instructions.

Libya has not had a government with nationwide reach since a 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi. Rival factions have divided the country, cities have been pitted against each other and government funds have been diverted through corruption.

After 2014, the country split between rival governments in the east and west. Despite a ceasefire since 2020 and some efforts to reach an agreement, Libya remains politically divided.

Given the national and more local problems, “it feels like Derna is one of the least equipped people to deal with such a tragedy,” said Tim Eaton of Chatham House in London.

Only a few places in Libya have survived the conflict that has engulfed the entire country unscathed. However, Derna has been particularly hard hit since 2014 by fighting and occupation by Islamic State (IS) militants, who were then driven out by rival jihadist groups.

When eastern commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) took control of the city in 2019, many residents of Derna said the advancing forces had punished both jihadists and ordinary city residents, said Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui.

The ongoing tense relationship between the residents of Derna and the LNA’s leadership in Benghazi was highlighted when eastern authorities postponed planned local elections following confrontations between pro-Hafter activists and their opponents.

“Derna is seen as a trouble spot in Benghazi,” Harchaoui said.

factionalism and corruption

National divisions also contributed to Derna’s problems.

Foreign governments recognize the Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli, but not the government in the east that elected the Libyan national parliament in Benghazi.

Although many governments maintain official contacts with Haftar and the eastern-based parliament, divisions in Libya mean that there are rival layers of officials in negotiations at the national level, including in the dispatch of aid.

However, there are some institutions that operate across the political divide. The Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli paid government salaries and financed some state institutions across the front lines even at the height of the conflict.

And a 2020 ceasefire that followed recent major fighting ended internal travel restrictions. Libyans can drive or fly freely between Tripoli and Benghazi.

But eastern factions have long complained that they are not getting a fair share of Libya’s oil wealth. Although the government in Tripoli has used state funds for reconstruction, there is little sign of development in the east.

The high finance committee set up this year with members from all political divides is intended to ensure that wealth is distributed fairly. But many ordinary Libyans say corruption will prevent wealth from trickling down.

Libya’s faction leaders deny engaging in bribery themselves, but often make the same accusations against rivals.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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