Libyan investigators are probing the collapse of two dams that caused a devastating flood in a coastal city as rescue teams searched for bodies yesterday, nearly a week after the deluge killed more than 11,000 people.
But observers fear their work will be hampered by conditions in the north African country, which plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Heavy rains caused by Mediterranean storm Daniel caused deadly flooding across eastern Libya last weekend.
The floods overwhelmed the Abu Mansur and Al Bilad dams, sending a wall of water several metres high through Derna, destroying neighbourhoods and sweeping people out to sea.
More than 10,000 people are missing, according to the Libyan Red Crescent. A week on, searchers are still digging through mud and hollowed-out buildings, looking for bodies and possible survivors.
Derna city following a powerful storm and heavy rainfall that hit the country on September 13, 2023
Members of the rescue teams from the Egyptian army carry a dead body in Derna as they walk in the mud between the destroyed buildings, after a powerful storm and heavy rainfall hit Libya, on September 13, 2023
Authorities and aid groups have voiced concern about the spread of waterborne diseases and shifting of explosive ordnance from Libya’s recent conflicts.
Libya’s General Prosecutor, al-Sediq al-Sour, said that prosecutors would investigate the collapse of the two dams, which were built in the 1970s, as well as the allocation of maintenance funds. He said prosecutors would investigate local authorities in the city, as well as previous governments.
‘I reassure citizens that whoever made mistakes or negligence, prosecutors will certainly take firm measures, file a criminal case against him and send him to trial,’ he told a news conference in Derna.
Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya at London’s Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, said that an investigation could pose ‘a unique challenge’ to judicial authorities, since it could lead to the highest ranks of leadership in eastern and western Libya.
A handout satellite picture released by Maxar Technologies on September 13, 2023 shows the port facility of Derna after floods, on September 13, 2023
A handout satellite picture released by Maxar Technologies shows Wadi Derna river and destroyed buildings in Derna after the floods on September 13, 2023
Later yesterday, local reports claimed Derna’s mayor, Abdel-Moneim al-Gaithi, has been suspended pending an investigation into the disaster.
Since 2014, eastern Libya has been under the control of Gen. Khalifa Hifter and his self-styled Libyan National Army. A rival government, based in the capital, Tripoli, controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. Neither tolerates dissent.
‘The key challenge to a thorough investigation is the Hifter coalition’s longstanding behaviour; its historic lack of accountability writ large could obstruct the unearthing of truths,’ Harchaoui said.
Local officials in the city had warned the public about the coming storm and last Saturday ordered residents to evacuate coastal areas in Derna, fearing a surge from the sea. But there was no warning about the dams, which collapsed early Monday as most residents were asleep in their homes.
A report by a state-run audit agency in 2021 said the two dams hadn’t been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.
Local and international rescue teams were meanwhile working around the clock, searching for bodies and potential survivors in the city of 90,000 people.
Libyan authorities have restricted access to the flooded city to make it easier for searchers to dig through the mud and hollowed-out buildings for the missing. Many bodies were believed to have been buried under rubble or swept out into the sea.
Maltese authorities said they found over 80 bodies during land and sea searches on Friday. One person was found alive 10 nautical miles, roughly 11 miles, off the coast of Derna. Malta’s armed forces have been helping with relief efforts in Libya since Wednesday.