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Rising Waters and Failed Leadership: The Tragedy of Derna

By Zainab Mahmod

With Storm Daniel taking Derna, Libya in its destructive path, what role do both climate change and post-Gaddafi government incompetence play?

2023, a year that will be remembered for its notorious natural disasters. From earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, to wildfires in Hawaii and North America, and more recently the earthquake in Morocco and flooding in Greece and Libya. These events have only ignited the discussion about the catastrophic impacts of climate change, especially with the extreme temperatures recorded this summer. According to the European Climate Change Service, July 2023 saw the hottest temperatures recorded globally since 1940.

A question arises: are natural disasters becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change, or are some regions more profoundly affected due to governance failures?

Our planet has always been geologically active and due to the movement of tectonic plates, has encountered numerous earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. While these geological activities can be ruinous and disastrous, they are completely independent of human influence and happen far beneath the Earth’s crust.

However, researchers have found that climate change may exacerbate some geological disasters – in the case of droughts and glaciation. In the case of flooding, evidence has shown that climate change has a distinct effect. The increase in temperature increases precipitation in the atmosphere, leading to proliferation of rainfall. While natural disasters aren’t new, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has reported that their frequency has increased by a factor of five between 1970 and 2019. 

In countries such as Libya, the impact of these natural disasters has been tremendous. Storm Daniel was first reported in Greece around 5 September, recording the equivalent of 18 months of rainfall in 24 hours. By the 10th of September it had reached many cities in Libya including the northeastern coastal city of Derna, where it caused extraordinary damage. The flooding caused the collapse of two dams along Wadi Derna, a river that flows through the region into the Mediterranean. The population of Derna is estimated to have been 90,000: since the flooding, at least 11,300 deaths have been reported with that figure possibly increasing to 20,000. In addition 30,000 people were displaced from their homes. The World Health Organization has voiced concerns over water-borne infectious diseases that may spread due to the number of dead bodies, resulting in the sectioning off of the most affected parts of the city. 

While climate change may have played a part in the catastrophe of Derna, there are larger factors at play. In regions such as Libya and Syria, the past decade has been a rocky socio-political landscape. Both countries came out of the Arab Spring with corrupt governments, impaired economies, and the rise of militia groups. Cities such as Derna, which were at the heart of the resistance movement against Gaddafi, were left entirely neglected for the duration of Gaddafi’s rule, but also after the revolution. The city’s infrastructure was poor and derelict, with the dams lacking maintenance since 2002. The country has been divided ever since, with the Western side including the capital city of Tripoli being led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and the Eastern side of the country, including Derna being led by Prime Minister Osama Hammad. However, persistent corruption in Libya provided fertile ground for General Haftar, the leader of a powerful militia group, to seize control of most of the country, including Derna. Communication, coordination, and aid delivery between the regions have suffered.

Petteri Taalas, the WMO chief  has commented that better warnings could have saved lives if not for mismanagement. Osama Hammad has since reported that authorities were aware of the flood warnings; however, civilians received inconsistent instructions on whether or not to evacuate. Derna officials had been aware of the structural instability of the dams but took no actions to repair them. It is not entirely unforeseen considering the state of the country post-civil war.  Preventing such disasters requires competent, well-governed states. Survivors in Derna are outraged, as neglect of this magnitude has cost them their city, their lives and their families. Corruption, deeply rooted in the region, is at the core of these problems.

In upcoming years, the impacts of climate change will increase issues within poorly governed kakistocracies. A notable example of such a vulnerable region is Mosul, Iraq, which was once a stronghold for the Islamic State. The Mosul Dam, ranked as the fourth largest in the Middle East, sits atop a soluble foundation of gypsum rock. US officials have warned that the dam’s collapse is imminent. In the event of such a catastrophe, flooding would stretch from Mosul, in the north, to Baghdad, with civilian casualties projected to exceed 500,000. If politicians do not take the correct steps to address the climate emergency, rectify the inadequate facilities, and allocate funds for emergency preparedness, the losses will be insurmountable. The situation in Derna serves as a stark indictment to neighbouring regions that the climate shows no mercy.

The scenic beauty of Derna with its white beaches and palm trees, has been tarnished by the turbid water, the collapsed buildings, and the miles of destruction. The shore brings the bodies of those thought missing and the city has completely disappeared without a remanence of what it once was. 

Mustafa al-Trabelsi, a poet who died in the flooding, wrote a poem titled “The Rain.” Its closing lines read, “The rain—a sign of goodness, a promise of help, an alarm bell.” 

Derna will be rebuilt, but its pain will forever linger.


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