“They knew it” – Libyans’ anger that warnings about the flood went unheeded

When hydrologist Abdul Wanis Ashour began researching the dam system protecting the port city of Derna in eastern Libya 17 years ago, the danger to residents was already no secret, he said.

“As I collected the data, I discovered a number of problems in the Derna Valley: in the cracks in the dams, in the amount of rainfall and in repeated floods,” he told Reuters. “I also found a number of reports warning of a catastrophe in the Derna Valley basin if the dams were not maintained.”

In an academic paper he published last year, Ashour warned that the city faced potential catastrophe if the dams were not urgently maintained.

“There were warnings beforehand. The state knew about it well, whether through experts from the Public Water Commission or through foreign companies that came to evaluate the dam,” he said. “The Libyan government has known for a long time what was happening in the Derna River valley and how dangerous the situation was.”

This week, the “catastrophe” that Ashour warned about in the pages of the Sebha University Journal of Pure & Applied Sciences occurred, exactly as he said it would.

On the night of September 10, the dams of the Derna Wadi, a dry riverbed most of the year designed to hold water as rain poured into the hills, burst, washing away much of the city below. Thousands of people are dead and thousands more are still missing.

Abdulqader Mohamed Alfakhakhri, 22, said he made it to the roof of his four-story building and was spared as he watched neighbors on their own roofs being washed into the sea: “They were holding their phones with the lights on, shook their hands and shouted.” “

Many Libyans are angry that bodies are still being collected from beneath the destroyed buildings and on the coast where they washed up because warnings that could have potentially prevented the worst disaster in the country’s modern history were ignored.

“There are a lot of people responsible for this. The dam has not been repaired, so now it is a disaster,” Alwad Alshawly, an English teacher who spent three days burying bodies as a rescue volunteer, said in an emotional video uploaded to the Internet.

“It’s human error and no one will pay a price for it.”

Spokespeople for the government in Tripoli and the eastern administration that governs Derna did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The authorities were already trying to repair the dams above Derna in 2007 when a Turkish company was awarded the contract to work on them. In his report, hydrologist Ashour cites an unpublished 2006 Water Resources Department study on “the danger of the situation.”

But in 2011, Libya’s longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a NATO-backed uprising and civil war, and for years afterward Derna was held by a number of militant Islamist factions, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The Turkish company Arsel lists on its website a project to repair the Derna dams that was started in 2007 and completed in 2012. The company did not answer the phone or respond to an emailed request for comment.

Omar al-Moghairbi, spokesman for a water resources ministry committee investigating the collapse of the dams, told Reuters that the contractor was unable to complete the work due to the security situation and had not returned when requested.

“Budgets were allocated but the contractor was not there,” he said.

Even if the renovations had been carried out, the dams would have failed, Moghairbi said, because water levels after Storm Daniel’s flooding exceeded the structure’s capacity, although the damage to Derna would not have been as severe.

Two Derna municipality officials also told Reuters that work on the dams, which had been commissioned before Gaddafi’s fall, could not be carried out afterward because the city had been occupied and besieged by the Islamic State for several years.

Even after the city was recaptured by the country’s eastern administration, work was not resumed.

In 2021, a report from the Libyan Audit Office cited “inaction” by the Ministry of Water Resources, saying it had failed to move forward with maintenance work on the two main dams above Derna.

According to the report, 2.3 million euros ($2.45 million) was earmarked for the maintenance and rehabilitation of the dams, but only part of the funds were withdrawn. It was not said whether or how these funds were spent.

Critics of the authorities say they are responsible not only for failing to repair the dams, but also for putting Derna residents in danger as the storm approaches.

Derna Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi said on Friday on the pan-Arab channel al-Hadath that he had “personally ordered to evacuate the city three or four days before the disaster.”

However, if such an order was issued, it does not appear to have been implemented. Some residents reported hearing police telling them to leave the area, but few appeared to have left the area.

Other official sources urged residents to stay put: a video released on Sunday by the Derna Security Directorate announced a curfew from Sunday night “as part of the security measures to deal with the expected weather conditions.”

Even as the disaster was unfolding on Sunday evening, the Ministry of Water Resources published a post on its Facebook page urging residents not to worry.

“The dams are in good condition and things are under control,” it said. The ministry spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the post.

The head of the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Petteri Taalas, said on Thursday that the great loss of life could have been avoided in a country with a functioning weather agency.

“The civil protection authorities could have evacuated people. And we could have avoided most of the human casualties.”

Assigning blame is never easy in Libya, where dozens of armed groups have waged continuous war since the fall of Gaddafi and no government has nationwide authority.

The internationally recognized Libyan government, based in the capital Tripoli in the west of the country, has no influence in the east and is under a rival government controlled by Khalifa Hafter’s Libyan National Army.

In Derna the situation is even more problematic. Haftar’s forces wrested it from Islamist groups in 2019 and still control it, albeit uneasily.

Libya’s problem is not a lack of resources. Despite 12 years of chaos, it is still a comparatively wealthy country, sparsely populated and producing oil, generating a decidedly middling GDP per capita of over $6,000.

The company has a decades-long history of extensive engineering projects, primarily on water management in the desert. Gaddafi’s large man-made river, for example, carries water from aquifers deep under the Sahara desert some 1,600 km (1,000 miles) to the coast.

But since Gaddafi’s fall, oil wealth has been distributed to rival groups that control the administrative apparatus and is almost impossible to trace.

Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, head of the Tripoli government, on Thursday blamed negligence, political divisions, war and “lost money” for the unfinished work on the dams.

In the eastern parliament in Benghazi, Speaker Aguila Saleh tried to shift blame from authorities, calling what happened an “unprecedented natural disaster” and saying people should not focus on what could or should have been done.

In Derna, residents have known about the danger posed by the dams for generations, said history teacher Yousef Alfkakhri (63), who counted down the years of minor floods from the 1940s. But the horror of Sunday night was incomparable.

“When the water began to flow into the house, my two sons and I fled to the roof with their wives. The water was faster than us and flowed between the stairs,” he remembers.

“Everyone prayed, cried, we saw death,” he said, describing the rushing water as “like a snake.”

“We have lost thousands in all wars over the last decade, but in Derna we lost them in one day.”

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Angus McDowall, Maya Gebeily, Laila Bassam, Tarek Amara, Emma Farge and Mariana Sandoval; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

Brian Ashcraft

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