[On 10 September 2023, Storm Daniel produced massive floods in northeastern Libya, visiting particular destruction on the city of Derna. As entire streets and their residents were washed out to sea, it was clear that many thousands had perished. Mouin Rabbani, Editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Tarek Megerisi, Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) to learn more about the scale of the devastation, and the broader crises in Libyan politics and governance the floods revealed.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What was the geographic scope of the catastrophic floods in northeast Libya? What do we know, and what have we yet to learn, about the human and material cost of this disaster?
Tarek Megerisi (TM): The 10 September floods unleashed by Storm Daniel covered the entirety of what is known as the Green Mountain region of Libya’s eastern province of Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic). Whilst Derna understandably became a focal point of international attention given the storm’s cataclysmic impact on the city, the broader region was also ravaged by flooding. Some villages were wiped entirely off the map, and larger towns like Al-Bayda and Sousse were almost completely submerged. The underlying infrastructure of the region has also been destroyed. The electricity grid has been severely damaged, leading to power cuts, while bridges have been knocked into the valleys they once spanned, and roads were washed away or ruined by silt.
The city of Derna has been riven in two by 115 million cubic meters of accumulated water that caused two dilapidated dams to burst. The resulting wall of water is estimated to have hit the city with a force greater than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Entire families perished, and locals guesstimate Derna’s death toll to be as high as 20-30,000 Given that the water damage has limited communications with the broader region and access through it, and with a crackdown on local journalists, it’s difficult to even estimate the scale of destruction and loss of life the flooding has caused beyond Derna. Nevertheless, it can be said that this is a historic disaster for Libya and the communities of the Green Mountain region.
The full scale of this catastrophe will likely never be fully quantified or reckoned with given the desperate efforts by all of Libya’s various political bodies, and eastern Libya’s military administration in particular, to cover up the storm’s full impact and thereby evade accusations of negligence.
MR: How would you characterize the affected area in terms of its demographic, social, economic, and political profile?
TM: The Green Mountain region is a locus of Cyrenaican identity and the province’s cultural heart. It is dotted with the remnants of the many civilizations that have carved a home in the mountains, from the ancient Greeks to the refugee populations that arrived from Andalusia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Like the broader province and indeed Libya as a whole it is economically disenfranchised. It was already ailing from decades of neglect and exploitative predation by various rulers even before the disaster struck. Cyrenaica had produced a premature rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi during the early 1990s, a few decades before the movement that would eventually remove him emerged. It suffered for doing so by being bombed and thereafter penalized with various forms of collective punishment in an ultimately futile effort by a waning tyrant to maintain his authority.
This troubled and violent history expressed itself once more following the successful rebellion in 2011 that ousted Gaddafi, which opened the door to a new series of troubles. The traumatized survivors of past rebellions attempted to hunt down their former oppressors, while Islamist groups tried to forge a new, austere identity for a region once known for its poets, artists and musicians. This came to a head in the city of Derna, where feuding Islamist groups produced widespread chaos that was exploited by he Islamic State group (ISIS) to seize the city. In 2015, after locals banded together to expel ISIS, Derna descended into a new battle with a new kind of tyranny, namely that of the region’s fledgling military dictator Khalifa Haftar and his self-declared Libyan Arab Armed forces (LAAF). Haftar tried to add the city to his growing dominions, but the locals resisted. The LAAF responded by besieging the city for several years, during which it was routinely bombed from the air by his foreign backers. The city was ultimately subdued in 2019 and placed under a military administration which continues to rule, oppressively, to this day.
MR: Would you characterize the flood as an unavoidable natural disaster as claimed by the local authorities, or are there measures they could and should have taken that would have ameliorated and potentially prevented this catastrophe?
TM: Storm Daniel was a natural disaster but a man-made catastrophe.
A hurricane-type storm is always a destructive event, as demonstrated by Storm Daniel’s impact on other countries like Greece. But the reason that the human and material destruction was substantially worse in Libya than elsewhere is the result of decades of accumulated neglect and the contempt of Libya’s rulers for those they govern.
Tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the military administration ruling Derna had listened to concerned citizens and meteorologists calling for an evacuation. Instead, they imposed a curfew.
The city of Derna could have been saved if the warnings of Libyan hydrologists had been heeded, and the Wadi Derna dams repaired and effectively maintained. These are measures for which funds had been allocated but held up due to petty politics and officials who consider their positions an opportunity for enrichment rather than a public responsibility.
Protocols should have been in place for emergency response, medical infrastructure destroyed by war should have been repaired, and the entire region (which is regularly flooded given that it receives the highest levels of precipitation in all of Libya) should have had better infrastructure in place. Instead, it has endured decades without meaningful investment, reconstruction money was looted by corrupt authorities, the population’s aspiration for elected municipal leadership was repressed by a military administration lusting for control, and local infrastructure was dismantled by Haftar to be sold for scrap instead of developed.
Ultimately there is no reason that the country with Africa’s largest oil reserves and a small population should exist as a deprived, underdeveloped nation. This is but one product of intense corruption, the political environment that enables it, and the geopolitical environment that sustains it.
MR: How have the authorities responded to this catastrophe? To what extent have rescue and relief efforts been hostage to Libya’s political conflicts and fragmentation, and how have local residents responded to official efforts?
TM: The day after the disaster struck the entire nation was in shock. The response was provided by the survivors, and those nearby who gave everything they had within them to help save those they found and bury the bodies that overwhelmed them.
In the days that followed local Libyan journalists documented, Libyan civil society organized aid teams and coordinated international media and assistance, whilst Libyan citizens loaded up vehicles with aid. A whole nation rallied to help. Even Libya’s notoriously ineffective government quickly triggered international mechanisms to enable international aid teams to attend, while Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC) organized aid ships and field hospitals.
As the shock wore off, the authorities snapped back into their old habits. The LAAF panicked at the networks springing up beyond its control, and at the sight of numerous aid workers, journalists, foreigners, and other Libyans running around their territory. Libyans started reporting that LAAF troops were stopping them in Sirte (the western boundary of LAAF territory), obstructing progress to affected areas unless they were able to call on contacts from an armed group. Aid was being stockpiled but not effectively distributed because the LAAF sought to ensure that it dominated the relief effort even though it lacked the skills and expertise to do so, and went so far as to shut down the NOCs efforts. In many cases the aid started to be stolen. Local journalists were arrested, international journalists were severely restricted, and even international aid teams like United Nations (UN) missions were blocked from travelling to Cyrenaica. Then, all of a sudden, Derna’s communications with the outside world were severed as the LAAF reimposed their authority on the city.
The LAAF and the collection of Libyan political bodies, including the official government in Tripoli, the rival government in eastern Libya, and what remains of its parliament have now come together to gaslight the Libyan population. Trying to significantly downplay the level of casualties, claim that they’re leading rather than obstructing an effective disaster response, and sporadically arresting minor officials to demonstrate accountability despite their insistence that there was no negligence involved in what they describe as an act of God. Meanwhile Libya’s politicians have positioned themselves to profit from the disaster, appropriating ten billion Libyan dinars (roughly USD two billion) for “reconstruction” for a new fund to be managed by the speaker of parliament.
MR: How would you characterize the regional and international response, particularly compared to the recent earthquake in Morocco? To what extent have these responses been defined by existing agendas vis-à-vis Libya?
TM: Given that Libya’s authorities quickly triggered the international mechanisms to facilitate aid responses, whereas Morocco refused to do so, Libya initially received more support. Teams from Turkey, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) quickly deployed search and rescue teams despite the geopolitical rivalries that have played out between them in the country. Germany dispatched a plane filled with aid. These rapid responses were quickly supplemented by other relief teams and aid shipments from Europe and the region.
Initially, this was a genuine needs-driven response with no real evidence of geopolitical positioning beyond the typical politicization of aid (for which Egypt receives top marks given the video of its response team parading before President Sisi before being dispatched). That said, political agendas and geopolitical rivalries can be expected to re-emerge during the reconstruction phase.
MR: Do you anticipate that the flood and the response by the authorities will have significant political consequences?
TM: It is still unclear how things will develop over the medium to long term. There is a deep reservoir of anger and frustration among Libyans towards those who rule them, and it has been deepened further by the sheer scale of the catastrophe and the callousness of the authorities’ response to it.
This peaked in a protest in Derna on 18 September, where protestors savvily put forward structured demands for international oversight over a reparations process, and accountability for Libya’s negligent politicians, while avoiding any explicit mention of the LAAF. The latter nevertheless responded with force, cutting off Derna’s communications, flooding the city with troops, carrying out arrests, and throttling the media.
While the anger remains, nationwide the LAAF’s chokehold on Derna suggests the situation will descend into one where all news is tightly controlled. The internal security apparatuses of both east and west Libya are on high alert for any signs of developing protest. Meanwhile the international community is retreating, and seems completely unperturbed by the pleas of Libyans to stop their – internationally legitimated, mandated, and sustained – authorities from profiting off their pain. As such, it is increasingly likely that this horrific catastrophe will deepen Libyans’ nihilism rather than lead them to risk being arrested, tortured, or killed to protest for reparations, accountability, and political change with no one willing to help them achieve it.
However, it is worth watching how the many thousands who have lost everything, their homes, families, and communities, may eventually seek retribution. Failing to provide reparations today could fuel a new rebellion, especially in a region notorious for them.
MR: What would you advise those seeking to help the victims of this catastrophe?
TM: It has become increasingly difficult to supply meaningful aid, help, and support given the LAAF’s shutdown of Derna and domination of the response effort. Even international agencies have reported restrictions on their work.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the people of the Green Mountain region need help. It just requires those wishing to help to be more vigilant in how they direct their support, and they should be prioritizing groups that can demonstrate active networks and genuine impact, or that work under the aegis of a nation-state which is often sufficient to protect them from the LAAF’s predations.