Libya Floods Kill Thousands

In September 2023, wild floods rampaged through Libya, with the coastal city of Derna facing the worst of the damage. A CNN article, quoting Doctors Without Borders, estimates around 5,000 people dead. Thousands more, they say are missing, somewhere trapped in the rubble of whole buildings collapsing. Due to heavy rainfall in Libya, two dams broke and released a “deluge of water” onto the cities, specifically Derna. The worst part? It didn’t have to be this catastrophic. 

An official UN statement noted that the harshest consequences of this natural disaster “could have been avoided” with more stable leadership. Libya recently finished a civil war (2020), and because of this was relatively unprepared to deal with such a large-scale disaster. There is no central governmental apparatus to conduct operations efficiently. UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) secretary general Petteri Taalas stated, “If there would have been a normal operating meteorological service, they would have issued the warnings,” conducted evacuations, and most importantly “avoided most of the human casualties.” Without functions like this in place, times that are already chaotic can be exacerbated by instability. A citizen named Khaled Al-Shuwaihed shared his experience, saying, “All my friends are dead.” 

It is more common to talk about war or other sorts of violence when we discuss threats to human beings’ security, but the impact of environmental disasters can be just as bad, and can both worsen and be worsened by the political and security problems. Unlike other conflicts, with humans that can theoretically be reasoned with, natural disasters affect us all and unfold in a manner akin to unthinking machines of destruction. What makes this recent story so tragic is that on top of the floods, the conflict has made Libya much less organized, leaving its citizens unprepared. What was already causing turmoil within its borders, now also hurts both their domestic as well as international responses. The UN, and similar organizations, now have to worry about destroyed roads, and different territories in their goal of getting some relief to those affected. 

Libya’s current situation can be explained with a brief look at its past political problems. Citing the Global Conflict Tracker, Libya’s most recent chaotic period began in 2011, when the Arab Spring (widespread protests throughout Muslim countries against harsh regimes) led to the public execution of previous dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose erratic and cruel regime had already laid waste to his country’s body politic and international standing for decades. After Qaddafi’s ouster, a transitional government gave power to the General National Conference (GNC). Over the next few years, the GNC faced widespread attacks from Islamic groups and other warlords and opportunists. By 2014, these conflicts boiled into full-fledged civil war, with one government based in Benghazi fighting an “internationally recognized” government in the city of Tripoli, and outside powers ranging from Russia and Turkey to the UAE picking sides and promoting proxies. This particular conflict ended in 2020, but disputes continue to this day. 

Overall, the recent floods in Libya have led to widespread destruction for many. And, it is true that the catastrophe would have still created that, even if there were proper precautions in place. But, when disasters happen in places that are unprepared to face them, the situation really becomes dire. Another citizen in Libya claimed a “seven-foot wave” knocked down whole buildings, like a mini-tsunami ripping through the country. And, due to the recent civil war, helping these people was extremely difficult. Even something as simple as foreign monetary aid was difficult to get into the country. Sadly, this tragedy is a reminder that poor policies can make environmental disasters worse, just as poor environmental policy can help lead to political strife and warfare over increasingly limited resources. It is a perverse feedback loop, one that wise leadership should strive to avoid.