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How War Left Libyans Vulnerable to Deadly Floods

This is a different kind of compound climate disaster.

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, 2023 Maxar

Libya is reeling from the aftermath of Storm Daniel, which swept across the Mediterranean and unleashed downpours that inundated towns, destroyed dams, and swept away entire neighborhoods. In the city of Derna alone, more than 6,000 people are dead, around 10,000 are missing, and at least 30,000 have been displaced, according to CNN.

“It's truly difficult to fathom the scale of the destruction,” Will Todman, deputy director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “Local officials are saying that what they need most at the moment are body bags.”

It’s a disaster that would be difficult to deal with under any circumstances. But Libya, which has been splintered by more than a decade of fighting, was particularly vulnerable to a storm like this one. It’s also a terrifying showcase of the intersection of conflict and climate: War and climate change are devastating on their own, but together they make their own particularly destructive kind of compound event.

To understand why Libya — and, more specifically, Derna — was primed for a disaster like this, we have to look at its recent history. In the years since Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown in 2011, the country split into two regions administered by rival governments. The Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, commands the country’s western regions and is internationally recognized. Meanwhile the Libyan National Army (LNA), backed by the military leader Khalifa Hifter, commands the country’s east from Benghazi; this is the government that oversees the regions impacted by the floods, including Derna.

Derna, meanwhile, has been a particular hotbed of conflict; while most of the country has been relatively peaceful since the overthrow of Gadhafi, according to Todman, Derna was essentially a warzone from 2014 to 2019. Hifter’s LNA forces spent most of those years fighting either the Islamic State or a group called the Shura Council, which was backed by the GNA and took control of the city in 2015. The LNA finally captured Derna in 2019, but all those years of war took a toll on the city’s infrastructure, which meant it was especially vulnerable to flooding.

The splintered government means it’s impossible to coordinate practically anything on a national level in the country, including something as simple as the weather forecasting that could have helped prepare for the storm. “There is no one meteorological agency that is trusted by all the authorities in the various states of control in Libya,” Todman told me. “Certainly the area is lacking the early warning systems that could have helped alert for the potential of something like this happening.”

Consequently, officials did not warn residents about the storm before it arrived. There was also nobody maintaining the dams outside Derna, which were supposed to protect the city from an event like this one; instead they burst, further inundating the city in an event TheNew York Times has compared to New Orleans’ levees failing during Hurricane Katrina. The storm was so intense that it’s difficult to say whether the dams would have held up even if they had been maintained, Todman told me. But if they had been kept up and the city’s neglected infrastructure been fixed, he said, the damage would not have been nearly as catastrophic.

The flooding in Libya is by no means the first instance of conflict and climate change intersecting, and it certainly won’t be the last. In 2022, Russia attempted to weaponize climate change by cutting off energy supplies to Ukraine and the European Union during the winter; a relatively mild winter helped sidestep that gambit, but this winter will bring more challenges. Researchers have long warned of climate change’s potential to start wars; Libya shows us what the aftermath could look like.

If there’s any bright side, it’s that the disaster might — maybe, potentially, possibly — spur the kind of unification the United Nations has been trying to achieve in Libya for years. Libyans in the western part of the country have been organizing donation drives, and The New York Timesreports the government in Tripoli sent rescue workers to help with the relief efforts.

“There is some hope that something like this tragedy could be a kind of black swan event,” Todaman told me. “It could actually open up some space for unification and dialogue. So there is a little bit of hope.”


Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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