As rescue workers battle to find up to 10,000 people thought to be missing after a devastating flood swept through a city in eastern Libya, it is not only the natural disaster they will have to contend with.
More than a decade of chaos and conflict in the north African country has left infrastructure in decay, state institutions hollowed out and weak, and a nation politically divided between factions in the east and west.
These factors threaten to complicate both the emergency response and recovery efforts, analysts said, particularly in the city of Derna, the epicentre of the catastrophe, a coastal city where thousands of people have already been confirmed dead, according to local officials.
Tim Eaton, a Libya expert at Chatham House, said: “You still have something like 140 government institutions that are divided between the east and west, so you can just imagine how difficult it’s going to be to have what is clearly going to need to be a wide-ranging response.”
The death toll in Derna — where two dams collapsed, worsening floods that swept away buildings, roads and bridges — has reached 5,100, according to the Ambulance and Emergency Center in Libya. The administration that runs eastern Libya similarly put the toll so far at 5,300.
The disaster was triggered by Storm Daniel, which raged across Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria before hitting Libya at the weekend, bringing with it torrential rain and strong winds that caused damage and flash floods. It is a catastrophe for which Libya, oil-rich but long dysfunctional, was ill-prepared.
Eaton said the disaster was “magnified by man-made failings”, citing previous warnings about the dams.
Last year a report published in a journal of Libya’s Sebha University had warned about poor maintenance of the city’s dam.
“The results that were obtained demonstrate that the studied area is at risk of flooding,” the report said. “Therefore, immediate measures must be taken for routine maintenance of the dams, because in the event of a big flood, the consequences will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city.”
The report said residents were living in homes along the valley and that “the matter requires raising awareness among citizens of the dangers of flooding and to undertake all necessary measures for their safety”.
Mohamed Eljarh, managing partner at Libya Desk Consulting, said the dysfunctional governments that have plagued Libya since 2011 were largely to blame.
“Maintenance for these dams in the city of Derna [was] not carried out. Infrastructure was already ailing; it was already dead. It’s not just Derna . . . even Tripoli or Benghazi struggle with just rainfall,” Eljarh said. “So of course the corruption, the dysfunction of the governance system, is largely to blame.”
Libya has been fractured and chaotic since former dictator Muammer Gaddafi was ousted by a 2011 popular uprising that morphed into civil war and drew the intervention of Nato.
Efforts to build a functioning democracy struggled, and for a decade, the country has been administered by competing governments in the capital Tripoli, and Benghazi, the largest city in the east, each of them backed by rival militias.
Renegade general Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army have militarily controlled the east for a decade, supported in recent years by Russian fighters from the Wagner Group.
Derna, a city of 100,000 people west of Benghazi, has endured many of the worst aspects of the chaos.
Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for defence and security studies, said: “Derna was despised and marginalised . . . everybody was ignoring it. The only hospital in Derna, a city of 100,000, was . . . a makeshift hospital that was effectively just a house after years of suffering, and that was before the tragedy.”
In the years after Gaddafi’s ousting, Derna was considered a bastion of Islamist extremists, including affiliates of Isis. It then fell under Haftar’s control in 2018 and 2019 after the strongman laid siege to the city for two years, but little effort was made to develop Derna after years of brutal conflict.
Haftar’s forces, which control the ports and roads in the east, will now have a crucial role in the recovery efforts. But Wolfram Lacher, Libya specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said “he’s also the one who partially destroyed Derna when he captured it in 2018-2019 and [is] known for fierce repression, particularly in this city, and his factions are known for being deeply corrupt”.
Lacher added that the east’s civilian administration, which is backed by Haftar, was extremely weak, lacking government machinery and the capacity to respond to the disaster, while the UN-backed government in Tripoli has no authority to operate in the east because of the political divisions.
“There’s a question of capacity but there’s all a big question of how this will play out in the power struggles that are ongoing,” said Lacher. “There’s no problems in regards to movement between the east and west, but the issue is whether actors impede aid from their political rivals, or try to claim it as their own.”
There has been no significant fighting in the country since Haftar’s forces were forced to abandon an 18-month offensive on Tripoli in 2020 after Turkey intervened to back the UN-backed government. But international diplomatic efforts to transition the country to elections in hope of having one unified, elected authority have floundered.
Eaton said that the political divisions should not impede rescue teams accessing the disaster area.
“But when we look forward, how are they going to put this right? There isn’t money in the Libyan exchequer to pay for it; there will be a fight over who manages it . . . it’s really hard to see how they are going to do that,” he said.
“It’s kind of a symptom of overall malaise where all of the money is going into the pockets of the politicians who are competing to get this ministry or that, and . . . spending on infrastructure or development has really been non-existent for some time.”