On Sunday the 10th of September 2023, Storm Daniel hit the Northeastern part of Libya. In the early hours of Monday the 11th of September, the heavy rain flow led to two dams collapsing in Derna’s eastern port, releasing 30 million cubic meters of water into Derna. This severely damaged a quarter of the city’s infrastructure. Although Derna was the most severely affected, other cities were also hit by the floods including Albayda, Soussa, Al-Marj, Shahat, Taknis, Battah, Tolmeita, Bersis, Tokra, and Al-Abyar.
The floods led to catastrophic human loss. On Friday 15th of September, the Libyan Red Crescent announced that approximately 11,300 people had lost their lives with 20,000 missing under the debris of the destroyed buildings and overturned cars. However, the death toll has been contested due to the volatility of the situation on the ground, with the WHO estimating that there were 3’958 deaths, 9,000 people missing and an additional 40,’000 displaced in Northeastern Libya.
What Made the Floods so Catastrophic?
The scientific explanation behind the intensity of the floods is that the warming of the Mediterranean Sea by 2°C over the past 40 years has increased the amount of vapour in the atmosphere and allowed Mediterranean cyclones like Storm Daniel to absorb more water, thereby unleashing harsher rain flow on any unfortunate region in their path.
That said, the magnitude of lives lost in Libya cannot purely be attributed to climate change. The floods last week inundated a country divided between a government based in Tripoli, backed by the UN, and General Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army, in the East, backed by Egypt and Russia’s Wagner group. The government in the East of the country has repeatedly neglected the renovation of the dams, despite clear signs of their erosion. Confirming these claims, a research paper conducted over a year ago by hydrologist Abdelwanees Ashoor exposed their poor infrastructural integrity, calling for their prompt renovation.
Many international observatories warned Haftar’s leadership of the imminent threat, to which they responded by declaring a curfew on the Saturday before the floods in some of the affected cities. This meant that no one was evacuated but ordered to stay put and await their eventual drowning.
The World’s Response
Responding to this catastrophe, the UNDP appealed for $71 Million in recovery. Of this aid, the UK has pledged to give £1 Million to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund. Australia also announced its sending of $1 Million, whereas the EU has pooled €500’000. This number is significantly low considering the amount of destruction in the country.
International responders, such as WHO, have focused on providing food packages, body bags, and other urgent healthcare services to the affected people in Libya. While countries such as Turkey, Algeria, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and France have sent search and rescue teams with divers, as well as aircrafts carrying vital aid.
However, notable in the emergency response is the way in which local first responders have come together tosupport each other. The Libyan diaspora has been trying to do their part too by combatting international misinformation and showing solidarity and support to the affected people.
Local and Diaspora efforts
Local activist groups, such as Tripoli-based Betress, have been working on providing aid to those in Derna despite the difficulties in travelling from Western to Eastern Libya.
The Libyan diaspora around the world also mobilised itself to provide emergency advocacy, fundraising and coordination support to those affected.
Many organisations that had been advocating for peace and justice in a post-Gaddafi Libya mobilised their pre-existing networks to share accurate information about the floods with the world from people on the ground. London and Tripoli-based Lawyers for Justice in Libya, whose director in London, Elham Saudi, has been amplifying the voices of local activists and journalists. For instance, Saudi shared Mohammed Elgrj’s report of the local authorities’ attempt at squashing a massive protest in Derna that took place on the 18th of September in response to the authorities’ failed evacuation strategy.
The US-based @thelibyansclub, originally a platform to bring Libyan people together, used its influential platform to share up-to-date information about the floods long before the news made it to mainstream media. It later extended its support by launching a fundraising campaign with Muslim Aid USA to fund local charities in Eastern Libya.
Many more fundraising campaigns were launched by the Libyan diaspora, such as Libya in the UK, a Libyan youth-led non-profit’s Emergency Appeal, raising $130,000 in 48 hours. They have also organised a collections centre for donation of necessary items at in cooperation with SOAS MENA Society at SOAS, University of London.
Regional diaspora initiatives have also organised solidarity fundraising efforts. For instance, the Syrian NGO, Molham Team, established by Syrian volunteers in Jordan and active first responders during the February 2023 earthquake in Northwest Syria, has launched a campaign to fund local Libyan relief teams. To this end, the Libyan Students Association in Canada partnered with the Molham Team to organise a bake sale raising funds for their campaign. As of writing this blog, they have raised $96’000.
As seen above, many diaspora university societies have played an active role in the response. UK examples include King’s College London and Warwick’s North African societies organising a joint picnic fundraiser for those affected by both Morocco and Libya’s recent climate disasters.
Regionally, important coordination efforts have been made by young members of the Libyan diaspora between Egypt and Libya. Young people in Cairo have been communicating with locals in Derna to coordinate humanitarian relief. In particular, a group called Libya Represent, who had been shedding light on the peaceful side of Libya not covered in mainstream media, has coordinated the successful shipment of 38 trucks filled with essential needs to its team in Eastern Libya. They provide their followers with daily news from on the ground, and updates about current needs.
As can be seen, the diaspora has played an important role in the emergency response to the Libyan flood catastrophe. Their local connections and experience of having worked on the Libyan cause for many years mean they have a deeper understanding of the realities Libyans have been facing. As such, the international community must continue supporting their efforts and treat the diaspora as equitable humanitarian partners.
Days before the devastating flooding in Libya, the Libyan poet Mustafa Al-Trabelsi attended a meeting about the high flood risk in Derna, after which he issued a warning on Facebook in the form of a poem in Arabic. Tragically, Mustapha was killed by the flooding in Derna. An English translation of his poem is available here.