Libya recently experienced devastating floods, resulting in significant loss of life and destruction. This article explores the causes of this catastrophic event, attributing it to a combination of extreme weather, vulnerable geography, and deteriorating infrastructure.
The flooding primarily affected Libya’s eastern region and was triggered by unprecedented rainfall from September 10 to 11. For example, the city of Al-Bayda, near Derna, typically receives minimal rainfall in September, averaging around 1.5 mm. However, during this period, it received an extraordinary 414.1 mm (over 16 inches) of rain. Derna, with a monthly average of under 1.5 mm, experienced rainfall exceeding 150 mm in just two days. These heavy rains were accompanied by strong winds, reaching speeds of up to 80 kph.
The extreme weather event was linked to Storm Daniel, also known as Cyclone Daniel, which formed in Greece. This storm transitioned into a ‘medicane,’ or a Mediterranean cyclone, before reaching Libya. The warmer Mediterranean waters, possibly a consequence of global warming, provided additional energy to the storm, making it stronger and more persistent. Such storms, fueled by higher sea surface temperatures, tend to bring heavier rainfall and more severe flooding when they make landfall.
Derna, a coastal city with around 100,000 inhabitants, suffered extensive damage during the floods. This was due in part to its geographical location. Situated at the end of a valley and traversed by the seasonal Wadi Derna river, the city relies on dams for flood protection.
During Storm Daniel, dams outside Derna collapsed, leading to flash floods down Wadi Derna that inundated the city. Derna has two dams: one approximately 12 km upstream and another on the southern edge. The breach of the first dam likely triggered a cascading effect, causing the second dam to fail, allowing floodwaters to enter the city center and wreak havoc.
The collapse of these dams underscored Libya’s crumbling infrastructure. The country has been plagued by a decade-long conflict between rival factions. Political instability and conflict have diverted attention and resources away from critical infrastructure maintenance and development.
Stephanie T. Williams, former special adviser on Libya to the UN secretary-general, pointed out that Libya has suffered routine neglect of its infrastructure, including dams, desalination plants, electrical grids, and roads. The ongoing political strife has hampered efforts to address these infrastructure challenges.
Moreover, Libya lacked the preparedness and resources to mitigate the effects of rare flooding events. The country lacked flood-resilient structures, proper road networks, and early-warning systems, particularly in vulnerable areas like Derna.
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