The tragic cost of failure of governance in Libya
Once a tranquil, albeit densely populated city on Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast, Derna now echoes to the sound of gut-wrenching wails, some for help, others for those still missing and likely killed in streets that were turned into swirling rivers by Storm Daniel.
More than 8,000 lives have been snuffed out, with an additional 10,000 reported missing. Infrastructure lies in ruins, roads have been ripped apart and, between the mournful cries, a disheartening silence haunts the spaces where many had worked hard to cobble together whatever they could amid Libya’s decade-long woes.
As the terrible toll of the storm rises and the full extent of the destruction is revealed, we must not forget the lives, dreams and aspirations that were ended not only by unrelenting skies but by the folly of man. Two dams that, designed as bulwarks against such catastrophes, succumbed to the onslaught of pouring rain, their inevitable failure amplifying the disaster.
But it was not only Storm Daniel that did the damage, it was also the sinister negligence of the authorities entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring such disasters could never happen. For example, their refusal to order evacuations, instead calling for curfews, and their failure to repair the dams despite multiple warnings and requests to do so. There are also reports of how funds set aside to bolster the dams were never spent on such work and instead disappeared into officials’ pockets.
Derna’s plight is a horrifying tale of the underacknowledged interplay between climate change and human failures. However, we must resist the urge to solely pin the blame for the catastrophe on the ever-convenient scapegoat of global warming. Yes, our planet is changing but so, too, should approaches to governance, policymaking and crisis management.
Thus, any discussions or erudite inquiries into the catalog of unforced errors that led to the destruction of Derna should skip the lazy exercise of passing the buck and labeling it as merely a consequence of a changing climate. The floods did not wreak havoc solely because of wrathful skies; the tragedy they wrought is also the manifestation of an undercurrent of systemic dysfunction and malfeasance that essentially made Derna an inevitability.
In other words, it was as much a man-made disaster as it was a natural one, born from the discord that has rocked Libya since the collapse of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011. Now Libyans must once again pay a steep price for collective failure exacerbated by the costs of attritional civil conflict, gross negligence, corruption and appalling incompetence, all fueled by a lack of urgency and a decade-long failure of state amid the squabbles between the east and the west of the country.
It is high time we ended this lazy exercise of blaming climate change alone for such disasters. The world must wake up to the hard truth: Derna is not only a city ravaged by a storm, it stands as a glaring testament to the catastrophic cost of official failure, negligence and incompetence, and a tragic reminder of what happens when critical safeguards are undermined in unconventional ways. Until we truly comprehend this, the storm is far from over.
So, what really went wrong? Our tale of negligence begins with the tumultuous political landscape in Libya, which has been split since 2014 between two rival factions. And so, after nearly a decade of civil unrest, the major storm arrived and dropped more than 400 millimeters of rain in just 24 hours on parts of Libya’s northeastern coast. The deluge was unprecedented in an arid region that normally sees an average of just 1.5 millimeters in September.
The split in governance between the eastern administration and the internationally recognized government in Tripoli is more than just senseless political theater. It has yet again manifested, in a catastrophic way, the consequences of state failures and corruption, which have hampered levels of preparedness, disaster response, and relief efforts.
The distressing scenes from Derna should serve as an urgent wake-up call for a course correction.
Derna’s own violent past is tightly entwined with its current circumstances. It was once the ground zero for Daesh’s Libyan splinter group and a persistent pocket of resistance against Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the so-called Libyan National Arab Army, who bombarded the city and razed it to the ground.
After the city came under Haftar’s control, about five years ago, the promise of rebuilding remained just that: a mere promise. Amid the rubble and buildings riddled with bullet holes, it is no wonder the system was already overwhelmed and underperforming, even before disaster struck.
To add to the frustration, days before the calamity, warnings of imminent disaster were issued by emergency-response authorities. Despite knowing the scope and severity of the threat, the due diligence that might be expected from a responsible administration was grossly overlooked, even prior to the arrival of Storm Daniel, given the poor maintenance of the dams and a lack of timely inspections and repairs.
Voices from the devastated region suggest there was negligence even in preparing for potential damage, with a lack of studies of weather conditions or evacuation plans. It is akin to an oncologist spotting a malignant cancerous growth and choosing to leave it untreated, despite sufficient funding, adequate resources and ample warnings. In the case of Derna, one of the warnings was an academic paper published last year by a hydrologist, which called for immediate maintenance work on the dams.
It is very likely that even more harrowing details will emerge, cataloging the series of failures that led to a quarter of Derna being wiped out. Even more upsetting, however, is the fact that efforts to lend aid, organize relief efforts and begin the painstaking work of helping Derna to recover are likely to flounder as well. Because a conundrum has developed concerning international aid — to whom should it go?
With Haftar's rival military government in Benghazi not recognized by the UN, there is concern about how aid meant for Derna will be administered. The power tussle in the country is effectively preventing emergency aid supplies from reaching those who need them the most, and hampering recovery work.
The tragedy of errors does not end there. Derna also suffers because it is in the particularly troubled province of Cyrenaica, long Libya’s most neglected municipality. The response to the crisis has been marred by serious miscalculations that led to the underestimation of the effective, substantial action that was needed.
In essence, the flood catastrophe is not only an event that happened but a symptom of prolonged negligence, inadequate administrative foresight, military competition and corrosive political rifts, all nestled within a crumbling ecosystem.
It underscores the lethal interaction between mutable weather patterns and the inflexible, myopic governance that collectively conspired to unleash this catastrophe on Derna. Its hapless residents are unlikely to find any semblance of peace to grieve and scrape together whatever they can in a country ravaged by on-and-off conflagrations, given that they have no government with the nationwide reach required to properly coordinate rescue, relief and recovery efforts.
The distressing scenes from Derna should serve as an urgent wake-up call for a course correction, not only for Libya but for climate and disaster policy worldwide. If left unchecked, the effects of our political and administrative myopia will continue to fuel disaster after disaster, each more grotesque than the last.
Ultimately, it is more than mere floodwaters that swell over the embankments. It is the torrent of negligence and uncaring governance that is responsible for the undertow that pulls entire cities into the deep dark depths of despair.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.