In a corrupt Libya, warnings concerning the dilapidation of the Derna dams remain a dead letter

The warnings were clear, but went unheeded

In a corrupt Libya, warnings concerning the dilapidation of the Derna dams remain a dead letter

The warnings were clear, but went unheeded. Experts have long said flooding poses a significant danger to the two dams built in the 1970s to protect nearly 90,000 people in northeastern Libya. Many called for the immediate recovery of the two damaged structures located in the coastal town of Derna and upriver. But the country's successive governments have not reacted.

“In the event of a major flood, the consequences will be disastrous for the inhabitants of the valley and the city,” wrote Abdelwanees Ashoor, professor of civil engineering, in a study published in 2022 in the Sabha University Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences, the scientific journal from the University of Sebha, in western Libya.

This prediction came true in the early hours of September 11, when residents of Derna were awakened in the night by loud explosions, before floodwaters swept over the Mediterranean city. They discovered that the two dams had failed, releasing a wall of water two stories high that swept entire neighborhoods of the city into the sea, killing thousands of people in seconds and washing away roads and bridges.

According to the latest assessment from the Libyan Red Crescent and the United Nations (UN), dated Sunday September 17, more than 11,300 people have died and more than 10,000 people are still missing a week after the disaster.

Negligence and corruption are commonplace in Libya, a country of about 7 million people whose economy relies almost entirely on oil and natural gas. In 2022, the country was ranked 171st out of 180 in the transparency index established by Transparency International.

Damage from the 1986 storm

Since 2011 and the Arab Spring which ended decades of dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, the country has been divided between two rival administrations: one in the west, supported by a set of armed groups and lawless militias , and the other in the east, allied with the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by General Khalifa Haftar.

The Abou Mansour and Derna dams were built by a Yugoslav company in the 1970s above the Derna wadi, which divides the city into two zones. The Abou Mansour structure, located 14 km from the city, was 74 m high and could hold up to 22.5 million m3 of water, while that of Derna, also known as Belad , located in the city, could hold 1.5 million m3 of water. Built with clay, rocks and earth, these dams were intended to protect Derna from flash floods, which are not uncommon in the region, and to irrigate crops downstream.

“The two dams had not been maintained for many years, despite repeated floods that hit the city in the past,” said Saleh Emhanna, a geology researcher at the University of Ajdabia, Libya. They were dilapidated. »

Both structures had previously suffered significant damage during a severe storm that hit the region in 1986, and more than a decade later a study commissioned by the Libyan government revealed cracks and cracks in the structures , recalled Libya's Attorney General, Al-Sediq Al-Sour, on Friday during a press conference in the stricken city. He announced the opening of an investigation into the double collapse and the probable misappropriation of the allocation of maintenance funds, as well as the sending of several investigators to different regions of the country to carry out investigations into local authorities. and the failings of previous governments. “I reassure citizens that prosecutors will pursue criminal charges against anyone who committed errors or negligence,” Mr. Al-Sour said. The eastern government has suspended the mayor of Derna, Abdel-Moneim Al-Gaithi, pending an investigation into the disaster. The mayor refused to speak.

Mixed messages

In 2021, a report from a public audit agency indicated that the two dams had not been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million (1.9 million euros) in 2012 and 2013 The audit points to the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Works and Natural Resources for not having entrusted the maintenance and structural restoration work to a company. In 2007, the Turkish Arsel Construction Company Ltd was responsible for ensuring the maintenance of the two structures and building a third between the two. The company says on its website that it completed its work in November 2012. But, according to recent satellite images, no third dam was ever built. Arsel did not respond to email requests from the Associated Press (AP).

The Turkish company was among dozens of Turkish companies that had projects worth more than $15 billion in Libya before the 2011 uprising. Many of them had fled the Libyan chaos before returning over the past two years. years, notably when the Turkish government intervened to help Tripoli repel an attack by General Haftar's forces in 2019.

Before Storm Daniel which hit the Mediterranean last week, the authorities had also sent contradictory messages to the population. They reportedly imposed a curfew in Derna and other regions in the east of the country. The municipality of Derna had published statements on its website inviting residents to evacuate coastal areas for fear of rising waters. Many residents said they had received messages on their phones urging them not to leave their homes.

Authorities now estimate that nearly a quarter of the city has been razed. This devastation reflects the intensity of the storm, but also the vulnerability of Libya. The country's infrastructure has been largely neglected despite the country's oil wealth.

Online petition

Civil society activists are calling for an international investigation, fearing that local investigations cannot be fruitful in a country largely governed by armed groups and militias.

Since 2014, the East has been under the control of General Haftar and his forces. The rival government based in the capital, Tripoli, controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. An online petition signed in recent days by hundreds of people, including rights groups and Libyan NGOs, says only an independent international committee can "discover the causes of this catastrophe" and hold those responsible to account corruption has become widespread in the country due to internal conflicts, instability and weak public institutions.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said an investigation into the disaster could reach the highest echelons of power in Libya, both in the West and the East. . Such an investigation “could potentially reach the highest levels of accountability,” he said. This presents a unique challenge.”

A report from the UN group of experts had already denounced the "predatory" behavior of the groups and militias which have been vying for power for more than ten years and had led to "the misappropriation of funds from the Libyan state and the deterioration of institutions and infrastructure”.