On September 10th, 2023, Storm Daniel, a tropical-like cyclone made landfall on the city of Derna, a port in northeastern Libya with a population of about 90,000. Between the 10th and the 11th, more than 100 mm of rain poured down and eventually overwhelmed two dams, named Derna and Bu Mansur, that had been built in the 1970s to protect the river valley the city sits in from flash floods. When the dams broke early in the morning on the 11th, floodwaters quickly tore through the city and wiped-out houses, businesses, roads, and even entire neighborhoods. According to the Libyan Red Crescent, the death toll was at 11,300 a week after the floods, but over 10,000 people were still missing and 7,000 were wounded. The Libyan Red Crescent has not updated their count since. An additional 30,000 people have lost their homes as a result of the floods.
Many fingers have been pointed at a variety of culprits, especially regarding the emergency response efforts. The precarious nature of Libyan politics since the NATO-supported overthrowing of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 means that much of the international aid was sent to Tripoli, nearly 850 miles from Derna, as opposed to Benghazi, a city less than 200 miles from the crisis. The increased distance, when compounded with the already poor infrastructure likely doubled the death toll, according to the UN. Other oft-inculpated malefactors are climate change, corruption, and the west; or some combination of these. However, when one takes a deeper look, it becomes clear that a lion’s share of the blame belongs to Arsel Construction Company Limited, a Turkish contractor that was hired in 2007 by Gaddafi’s “Secreteriat of Agricultural Reclamation and Land Development General Water Authority” to repair the dams, and according to their website, the rehabilitation was completed in 2012.
The effectiveness of the “rehabilitation” did not go unquestioned, in 2021, Abdel-Wanis Abdel-Aziz Ramadan Ashour of Sebha University in Sebha, Libya, published a study in an academic journal that said if a flood of the magnitude of a 1959 disaster where 146 mm of rain were recorded, that “it might cause the collapse of one of the two dams (Derna and Bu Mansur), making the residents of the valley and the city of Derna vulnerable”*
His concerns fell on deaf ears, no additional rehabilitation projects were undertaken, and there was no accountability for the failures of Arsel CCL. This systemic and multivariable negligence resulted in an entirely preventable disaster with dire consequences. It is a stark reminder of the complex interplay between natural disasters, infrastructure, governance, and climate change. In the future, sound research must be heeded, and international cooperation needs to be a priority in disaster relief.
Contact Kai at email@example.com