Analysts: Effect of Libya's killer storm made worse by decade of conflict

A volunteer sits on the rubble of a building in a flash flood-damaged area in Derna, Libya, on Sept. 14, 2023. [AFP]

Just hours after epic storm Daniel dumped torrential rains on Libya's coast, breaching dams and killing thousands, some called it perhaps the deadliest and costliest Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone ever recorded.

Described by some scientists as the latest extreme weather event linked to climate change, analysts tell VOA that conflict, political division and neglect of public infrastructure also played a role in making Libya helpless as Daniel's downpour burst two dams, sweeping entire neighborhoods of the coastal city of Derna into the sea.

"Bodies are lying everywhere in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings," one Libyan official told the Associated Press.

Some experts familiar with the stricken region say the sheer scope of the devastation goes beyond a climate crisis-induced catastrophe.

"Years of conflict and division, administrative malfeasance and misgovernance hitting this very vulnerable area" has compounded the impact of the storm, said Stephanie Williams, a non-resident senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, who served as a U.N. special advisor on Libya.

"All of this converged to create a terribly catastrophic situation now," she told VOA. "Political instability is quite complicating in this environment and I'm sure there will be many who will want to play the blame game."

Saudi Arabia's Arab News newspaper said the "startling death and devastation" caused by the storm’s intensity also exposed Libya's vulnerability after being divided between rival governments and "torn apart by chaos for more than a decade."

"Libya, for the past 10 years, has gone [from] one war to another, one political crisis to another,” Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group told The New York Times newspaper. "Essentially this has meant that, for the past 10 years, there hasn’t really been much investment in the country's infrastructure."

Malak Eltaeb, an analyst with Washington’s Middle East Institute, told VOA by email that conflict and unrest have left social services severely weakened.

"And a failure to maintain facilities, like dams — unfortunately, there were no mitigation strategies, early warning systems or evacuation plans in place,” she said of the disaster in Derna, which lies some 900 kilometers east of the capital, Tripoli, an area controlled by military commander Khalifa Haftar's forces. "No measures were taken to protect civilians or reduce damage."

But Brookings analyst Williams said that despite the geopolitical divide, the rival, internationally recognized government based in Tripoli in western Libya and allied with other armed groups, is coming to the aid of citizens in the country's east.

"There's a great outreach from all Libyans to the people, particularly in Derna, of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli," she said. "It has sent assistance; it's allocating funds to help with immediate humanitarian needs and long-term rebuilding."

Desperately needed aid, she added, is also reaching people by civilian convoys from western Libya and by the national oil company to Libyans in the east. "The division right now is not a barrier to assistance," she said.

Addressing a news conference on Tuesday, World Health Organization spokesperson Margaret Harris described the flooding as being of "epic" proportions.

Humanitarian groups have also expressed concerns that migrants and refugees from more than 40 countries who use Libya as a launch point for Europe may have been caught up in the floods.

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