Libya’s Turmoil Exacerbates Its Susceptibility to Devastating Floods

by Michael Nguyen
Libya's Devastating Floods

The catastrophic storm that has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and left countless others unaccounted for in Libya adds another layer of adversity to a nation already destabilized by prolonged turmoil and fragmentation.

This flooding event marks the deadliest environmental calamity in Libya’s recent history. Years of armed conflict and the absence of a cohesive government have led to deteriorating infrastructure, leaving the nation particularly susceptible to such extreme weather conditions. According to United Nations data, Libya remains the only country that has not yet established a climate action plan.

Since the NATO-supported Arab Spring revolt ousted authoritarian leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Libya has been plagued by ongoing divisions and infighting among militias.

The eastern city of Derna bore the brunt of the destruction, witnessing the disappearance of large sections of buildings along its rivers, following the rupture of two dams.


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Footage from the devastation depicts torrents of water cascading through remaining high-rises and overturned vehicles in Derna’s port area. Later, the grim sight of bodies covered with blankets and arrayed on pavements for funeral rites emerged. Local residents noted that the dams’ loud cracking served as the sole warning, in the absence of any official alert or evacuation protocols.

Challenges in Administering Aid: Dueling Governments and Leadership

Since 2014, Libya has found itself divided between two antagonistic governments, each endorsed by different international supporters and controlling various armed factions within the country.

In the capital city of Tripoli, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah leads the globally-recognized government, while in Benghazi, the opposing prime minister, Ossama Hamad, governs the eastern region with the backing of influential military leader Khalifa Hiftar.

Though both administrations, as well as Hiftar, have individually committed to aiding the flood-stricken regions, their history of collaboration is virtually nonexistent.

Years of diplomatic efforts to merge the rival legislative bodies have been unfruitful, even with external pressure for unification. Planned elections in 2021, for instance, never materialized.

As recently as 2020, the factions were engaged in full-scale warfare. Hiftar’s troops laid siege to Tripoli in an unsuccessful year-long military campaign, causing a heavy loss of life. In 2022, a failed attempt was made by former eastern leader Fathi Basagah to establish his administration in Tripoli, but inter-militia hostilities led to his withdrawal.

International involvement has only deepened the schisms. Hiftar’s forces are supported by countries including Egypt, Russia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Conversely, the administration in western Libya is backed by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy.

Despite ongoing rescue efforts involving multiple nations, reaching the afflicted city of Derna remains a monumental challenge. Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group specializing in Libya, attributes the problem partially to severed transportation routes but also points to underlying political discord.

“The Tripoli-based government has to approve international rescue teams’ entry into the most impacted regions, further complicating the logistics,” said Gazzini. She expressed skepticism that the Benghazi administration would be able to manage the crisis independently.

Continuing Discontent and Instability

Last month, widespread protests erupted in Libya following the revelation of a covert meeting between Libyan and Israeli foreign ministers. The protests eventually evolved into calls for Prime Minister Debibah to step down.

Earlier in August, clashes between competing militias in the capital led to the death of at least 45 individuals, underlining the continued influence of rogue armed groups in Libya.

Moreover, Libya serves as a major conduit for migrants from the Middle East and Africa who are escaping war and destitution. Both militias and human traffickers are exploiting this instability, smuggling migrants from various nations including Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan.

Libya’s abundant oil reserves have scarcely improved conditions for its citizens. The nation’s principal export, crude oil, has been severely impacted by blockades and security concerns, leading to disagreements over the distribution of oil revenues.

The Story of a Neglected City

Founded during Libya’s Italian occupation in the first half of the 20th century, Derna was once known for its picturesque white beach houses and palm gardens.

However, following Gadhafi’s removal in 2011, the city transformed into a focal point for Islamist extremist groups. It experienced aerial bombardments from Egypt and was subsequently blockaded by Hiftar’s forces, which eventually took control of the city in 2019.

Like other cities in eastern Libya, Derna has seen little in the way of reconstruction or investment since the revolution. Most contemporary infrastructure dates back to the era of Gadhafi, including the now-collapsed Wadi Derna dam, built by a Yugoslav firm in the 1970s.

Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, notes that Hiftar regards Derna and its inhabitants with suspicion.

“Last year, a substantial redevelopment plan for the city was initiated by external parties, rather than by Derna’s own residents,” said Harchaoui. “This ongoing mistrust could have dire consequences in the aftermath of this disaster.”

Contributions to this report were made by Cara Anna of Big Big News, reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Libya’s Devastating Floods

What is the primary focus of the article?

The article primarily focuses on the devastating floods in Libya, examining how years of political instability, armed conflict, and lack of infrastructure have made the country susceptible to this environmental catastrophe. It provides a comprehensive analysis of the factors contributing to the crisis and the challenges faced in administering aid.

What makes this flooding event historically significant for Libya?

The floods are the deadliest environmental calamity in Libya’s recent history. The absence of a cohesive government and deteriorating infrastructure have exacerbated the impact of extreme weather conditions, making the nation particularly vulnerable.

Who are the main political factions in Libya?

Libya is currently divided between two primary political factions. One is led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and is internationally recognized, operating out of Tripoli. The other, led by Prime Minister Ossama Hamad, is based in Benghazi and is backed by military commander Khalifa Hiftar.

What international entities are involved in Libya?

Various international entities back the different factions in Libya. Hiftar’s forces are supported by Egypt, Russia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. The administration in western Libya is backed by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy.

How has the political strife in Libya impacted the rescue and relief efforts?

The divided political landscape in Libya has significantly hampered rescue and relief efforts. While both administrations have pledged to assist the affected areas, their history of non-cooperation has made it difficult to execute effective rescue operations. Furthermore, political divisions have complicated the logistics of international aid reaching the afflicted areas.

What are some ongoing issues in Libya aside from the flooding?

Besides the flooding, Libya has experienced a range of issues stemming from its lawlessness. These include protests against the government, clashes between rival militias, and a significant role in human trafficking and illegal migration. Additionally, the allocation of oil revenues remains a point of disagreement among different parties.

How has the city of Derna been particularly affected?

Derna has suffered the most in terms of destruction from the floods. Large portions of its buildings along the river have vanished due to the bursting of two dams. The city had already been a focal point for Islamist extremist groups and has seen little in terms of reconstruction or investment since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

What challenges do rescue operations face in reaching Derna?

One of the key challenges in reaching Derna is logistical, as many of the roads have been severed by the storm. Moreover, any international rescue effort must navigate the complexities of receiving permissions from the divided authorities in Libya.

What is Libya’s stance on climate change?

According to United Nations data, Libya remains the only country that has not yet established a climate action plan, which adds another layer of complexity to dealing with environmental disasters like the recent floods.

Who contributed to this report?

Contributions to this report were made by Cara Anna of Big Big News, who reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

More about Libya’s Devastating Floods

  • Libya’s Political Landscape
  • Understanding the Libyan Crisis
  • Natural Disasters in North Africa
  • Global Climate Action and the UN
  • International Crisis Group on Libya
  • The State of Infrastructure in Libya
  • Human Trafficking in the MENA Region
  • Libya’s Oil Economy
  • Emergency Response Strategies
  • Arab Spring and its Aftermath in Libya

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JohnDoe September 13, 2023 - 1:26 pm

Wow, this is an eye-opener. Never knew Libya was goin’ through such a tough time. floods just add salt to the wound, huh?

NinaQ September 13, 2023 - 4:05 pm

Where are the superpowers when you actually need them? Always there to fuel the fire but never to put it out. smh.

EmilyR September 13, 2023 - 4:58 pm

It’s insane that Libya still doesn’t have a climate action plan. With all the chaos goin on, you’d think climate would be a big priority.

ChrisP September 13, 2023 - 5:11 pm

Good article but what about the ordinary people stuck in the middle? Would’ve liked to see more focus on that.

AnnaK September 13, 2023 - 5:50 pm

The situation in Derna sounds particularly bad. my heart goes out to the people suffering there.

SarahM September 13, 2023 - 5:59 pm

This article is so well-researched. It goes way beyond the floods, revealing the underlying issues that’s making things worse. hats off to the writer.

RobertT September 13, 2023 - 6:49 pm

The political division is the root cause here. Until that gets sorted, don’t see how any real progress can be made. So sad.

Mike87 September 14, 2023 - 12:23 am

why is the international community not doing more? this is a humanitarian crisis! Someone’s gotta step in and do something.


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