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Unheeded Warnings Lead to Catastrophic Dam Failures in Libya

by Michael Nguyen
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Libya Floods

Despite clear cautionary signals, the long-standing alerts regarding the impending failure of the Derna dams in Libya were disregarded.

For an extended period, specialists had been emphasizing the critical risk of flooding to the two dams designed to shield approximately 90,000 inhabitants in northeastern Libya. They consistently advocated for urgent repairs to these structures, situated just above the coastal city of Derna. However, the politically fragmented administrations that have governed this turbulent North African country did not take action.

Abdelwanees Ashoor, a distinguished civil engineering academic, highlighted the grim consequences of a major flood in a research paper published last year in the Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences from Sabha University. He asserted, “In the instance of a significant flood, the ramifications could be calamitous for both the valley’s and the city’s residents.”

On the morning of September 11, the grim forecasts came to fruition when the people of Derna were jolted awake by resounding blasts, followed by devastating floodwaters. Both dams had failed, unleashing a torrent of water two stories high that caused widespread devastation and swept entire communities into the sea.

The flood resulted in a swift and large-scale loss of life, demolishing residential complexes and eradicating infrastructure like roads and bridges. Reports from the Libyan Red Crescent and the United Nations confirm that more than 11,300 lives were lost, including those of foreign nationals, and over 10,000 individuals are still unaccounted for a week after the catastrophe.

Corruption and negligence are endemic in Libya, a nation with a population of around 7 million that sits atop substantial oil and natural gas reserves. In 2022, Transparency International ranked Libya 171st out of 180 countries on its transparency index.

Libya has been in a state of turmoil since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, backed by NATO, led to the overthrow and subsequent killing of long-term dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Since then, Libya has fractured into two rival administrations. One is situated in the west and supported by a hodgepodge of unregulated armed factions, and the other in the east, aligned with the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Hifter.

The dams in question, Abu Mansour and Derna, were constructed in the 1970s by a Yugoslav company above Wadi Derna, which bisects the city. Abu Mansour, located 14 kilometers from Derna, stands at 74 meters and has a capacity of up to 22.5 million cubic meters of water. The Derna dam, also known as Belad, is closer to the city and can hold 1.5 million cubic meters of water. Despite their critical role in flood prevention, these dams had been in a state of disrepair for years, as noted by Saleh Emhanna, a geological researcher at the University of Ajdabia in Libya.

Further complicating the issue, state audit reports from 2021 indicated that despite an allocation of more than $2 million for maintenance in 2012 and 2013, no work was carried out. Responsibility for this failure was laid at the feet of the Ministry of Works and Natural Resources.

A Turkish company, Arsel Construction Company Ltd., was contracted in 2007 for maintenance work on the dams, completing its tasks by November 2012 according to its website. However, recent satellite imagery indicates that no third dam, which was also part of the contract, has been constructed.

Conflicting messages from authorities further muddled the situation ahead of the storm, with some advising evacuation while others told residents to stay put. The tragedy has erased as much as a quarter of Derna, underlining both the severity of the natural disaster and Libya’s existing vulnerabilities.

Chief prosecutor al-Sour has promised thorough investigations, and Derna’s mayor has been suspended pending an inquiry. Nonetheless, many are calling for an international investigation, fearing that a domestic one would yield no meaningful results in a nation governed largely by armed groups.

As calls for accountability grow, the challenges ahead are monumental. An investigation could implicate high-ranking officials on both sides of the country’s divide, presenting unique obstacles to delivering justice.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London, believes that such an inquiry would face considerable hurdles, given that it could implicate individuals at the highest echelons of power. “The task is uniquely challenging,” he concluded.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Derna dams failure

What is the main subject of the article?

The article primarily focuses on the catastrophic failure of the Derna dams in northeastern Libya, which led to a devastating flood claiming more than 11,300 lives.

What warnings were given prior to the dam failures?

Experts and specialists had been issuing warnings about the critical risk of flooding to the Derna dams for an extended period. They had been advocating for urgent maintenance and repair work, which were largely ignored by the successive administrations in Libya.

Who are the key figures mentioned in the article?

Key figures include Abdelwanees Ashoor, a professor of civil engineering, who warned about the catastrophic impact of a flood; Saleh Emhanna, a geological researcher; and Libya’s chief prosecutor al-Sour.

What role did corruption and political instability play in this disaster?

Corruption and political instability are cited as significant contributing factors to the disaster. Despite ample oil and natural gas reserves, Libya has been grappling with endemic corruption, scoring low on the Transparency International index. Moreover, the country has been politically fragmented since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, making coordinated action difficult.

How many people were affected by the flood?

According to reports from the Libyan Red Crescent and the United Nations, over 11,300 people were killed, and more than 10,000 remain missing a week after the flood.

What were the capacities of the Derna and Abu Mansour dams?

The Abu Mansour dam, located 14 kilometers from Derna, stands at 74 meters and has a capacity of up to 22.5 million cubic meters of water. The Derna dam, also known as Belad, is closer to the city and can hold 1.5 million cubic meters of water.

Are there calls for an international investigation into the incident?

Yes, many are calling for an international investigation, fearing that a domestic inquiry would not yield meaningful results in a country largely governed by armed groups and militias.

What were the conflicting messages from authorities before the storm?

Before the storm hit, authorities provided contradictory guidance. Some advised evacuation of the coastal areas, while others sent text messages to residents urging them to remain in their homes.

Who was responsible for the maintenance of the dams?

A Turkish firm, Arsel Construction Company Ltd., was contracted for maintenance work on the dams and stated that it completed its tasks by November 2012. However, a state audit in 2021 revealed that no maintenance work had been done despite allocated funds.

What challenges does an investigation into the disaster face?

An investigation into the disaster would face significant hurdles, especially given that it could implicate high-ranking officials from both sides of Libya’s political divide. The task is considered “uniquely challenging,” as stated by Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui.

More about Derna dams failure

  • Transparency International’s Corruption Index
  • Libyan Red Crescent Reports on Flood Victims
  • United Nations Briefing on Libyan Crisis
  • Sabha University Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences
  • University of Ajdabia Research Publications
  • Arsel Construction Company Ltd. Official Website
  • U.N. Panel of Experts Report on Libyan State Funds and Infrastructure
  • Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies on Libya
  • Libyan Ministry of Works and Natural Resources
  • Satellite Images of Flood Devastation in Libya

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