The kind of floods that is unfolding in Derna, Libya right now is the result of the climatic crisis colliding with a state that is no longer able to function properly.
Any city that was hit by the unprecedented amount of precipitation that Storm Daniel brought to the northern coast of Libya would have had a difficult time surviving. Even in its early, less violent state, the storm was capable of wreaking significant havoc in Greece before it made its way across the Mediterranean.
However, the scale of the destruction, which has been dubbed as “Libya’s 9/11,” is also a result of the ineffective political system in the country as a whole. A fourth of the city was washed away into the water during the attack.
Since the violent overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which was supported by the west, the country has primarily been controlled by two competing administrations, one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk. Each administration is supported by an assembly of competing external parties, such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, and Russia’s Wagner group.
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Gaddafi’s pseudo-socialism led to the destruction of oil-rich Libya’s private sector. This was accomplished by the dictator’s administration of state-owned firms, which broke up the autonomous powerbase of the upper classes.
“State enterprises became patronage networks,” argues Wolfram Lacher, who is the co-editor of a collection of articles titled Violence and Social Transformation in Libya, which was released not too long ago.
Following Gaddafi’s fall from power, both factions have become equally centralized. The militias in the western part of the country were the ones who put forward candidates for ministerial positions in the government of national unity. A relentless push toward centralization in the east, led by the dictatorial head of the Libyan National Army, General Khalifa Haftar, and his family, similarly resulted in a large number of executives being chosen by Haftar or his friends.
The two factions were engaged in a full-scale war as recently as the year 2020. In an unsuccessful military campaign that lasted for an entire year and resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians, Hafter’s men attempted to seize the capital city of Tripoli by besieging it. The following year, in 2022, the former head of the eastern administration, Fathi Bashagha, attempted to relocate his government to Tripoli, but he was forced to retreat as competing militias engaged in violent conflict.
This rumbling, primarily low-intensity battle, in which leaders are need to assuage their base by handing out gifts, is the worst atmosphere in which to make infrastructure investments that will only yield returns in the long term.
Taking all of this into consideration with regard to Derna, a city that has been in a state of decline ever since Gaddafi’s death, whether it was because it was under the control of Islamic State or because it was retaken by Haftar in 2016, and infrastructure investment has always been in high demand, we can say that the city has suffered greatly. Haftar, who completed his secondary education in the city, has also attempted to maintain a tight grip on the political situation in the Derna.
Elections for the municipal city council were set to take place this month, and voter registration and candidate lists were being produced. However, in recent weeks, members of the Awliya al-Dam brigades loyal to Haftar have been burning campaign posters and threatening candidates with kidnapping and murder in order to demand that the elections be canceled and a military governor be installed in the city. The individual in charge of the election commission stated that he had received death threats. Speaker of the House of Representatives of the eastern-based parliament, Aguila Saleh, advocated the formation of a temporary management council as a way to postpone the poll.
The two massive dams that were created in the small valley that was located above Derna were a disaster waiting to happen. This was especially true because the housing that was built near to the river was of poor construction and had become increasingly dense and high-rise. The two dams were constructed in the 1970s by a company from Yugoslavia. In 2022, a lengthy academic study was written about the risk posed by the dams and their state of degradation. The article calculated the weight of water that would be required to crush the dams and how the water may run out given the geography.
An audit that is currently circulating online shows that very little of the money that was set aside for working on the dams appears to have been spent. As soon as the flood waters breached the first dam, they swiftly collected behind the second dam, which led to its failure as well.
As the storm drew closer, no orders were provided to begin making preparations for evacuating the area. Instead, a curfew was enacted, which is the typical response that Libyan militias take whenever there is a problem.
It is not yet known whether the politicians who were responsible for leaving Derna so open to the elements will also be swept away by the overflowing river along with the buildings that were destroyed when they fell into it. The events of the previous few years have taught us that both in the east and in the west, people have a remarkable capacity to survive.