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    Tragedy Strikes Derna- Decades of Neglect Culminate in Devastating Floods

    A Mediterranean Gem Turned Wasteland - How Official Neglect and Corruption Led to Catastrophe

    Once a picturesque Mediterranean city adorned with historic mosques and the remnants of a Byzantine church, Derna, Libya, now stands as a desolate wasteland. A deadly storm, long in the making, unleashed catastrophic floods, rupturing dams, sweeping entire buildings into the sea, and claiming thousands of lives.

    The calamity’s roots trace back decades, a consequence of official negligence that spanned the authoritarian regime of Moammar Gadhafi and the tumultuous political crisis and warfare that followed his ouster in the 2011 revolution.

    The dams, constructed in the 1970s, languished without maintenance for over two decades, Libyan officials lamented. Astonishingly, a staggering $1.3 million allocated for their upkeep mysteriously vanished, as revealed in a 2021 report from the Libyan State Audit Bureau, verified by Libyan authorities and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Storm Daniel, unleashing record-breaking rainfall in Greece, inundated the ill-fated dams and, consequently, the port city of Derna.

    This disaster is estimated to have claimed the lives of approximately 6,000 individuals, with thousands more still unaccounted for. Streets became makeshift morgues as authorities and grieving relatives resorted to collective graves. Derna’s mayor expressed the grim possibility that the death toll could surpass 20,000. Libya’s public prosecutor has now descended upon the city to initiate a criminal investigation, aimed at holding those responsible for failing to prevent the dam’s collapse accountable.

    For ordinary Libyans, this devastating tragedy symbolizes the utter failure of governance in a nation fractured between two rival governments that have forsaken the fundamental task of maintaining state institutions and services. Furthermore, it underscores the overwhelmed state of local authorities, controlled by the Russian-backed militia leader, Khalifa Haftar.

    Tarek Megrisi, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, aptly summed up the situation, stating, “None of the governments in Libya are designed to govern.” Instead, he noted, they are primarily driven by the pursuit of power and wealth. “We’re 12 years deep into that now. We’ve had a lot of time to be a failed state.”

    Derna now stands at the forefront of public discontent against the ruling elite. The city, which has witnessed some of Libya’s most intense violence in recent years, encapsulates the repercussions of decades of authoritarianism under Gadhafi and the subsequent erosion of state institutions post-revolution, which fostered a culture of corruption.

    In 2011, Derna played a pivotal role in the protests against Gadhafi. However, in 2014, it fell under the control of Islamic State militants. Egypt responded with airstrikes against the group, and in 2018, Haftar’s forces launched a campaign against militants in the city, resulting in a prolonged siege. Human rights organizations accused Haftar’s forces of civilian casualties and the forcible displacement of thousands. Haftar’s militias vehemently denied these allegations.

    In 2021, after Libyan officials formed a short-lived unity government, $335 million was allocated from the state’s budget to rebuild the war-torn cities of Benghazi and Derna. However, this allocation became entangled in political disputes, leading to a split between the head of the fund overseeing reconstruction and the Tripoli government in 2022. This turmoil left parts of Derna in disrepair, rendering them vulnerable to the impending flood.

    Haftar’s militia-controlled enclave, isolated from the rest of the country, is particularly susceptible to corruption and neglect of public services, experts contend. The armed forces dominate the enclave’s economy, with Haftar’s forces exerting significant control over the construction sector. Additionally, Haftar’s forces generate revenue through human and weapons smuggling, infrastructure seizure, business extortion, and misappropriation of state funds, as documented by anticorruption groups and experts. Haftar and his deputies vehemently deny allegations of corruption.

    Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, aptly characterized the situation as a “mafia state,” emphasizing that the blame should not fall solely on one individual. Instead, he noted, it is the result of collective actions by a group of individuals.

    The rival governments in Tripoli and the east are locked in a blame game, each accusing the other of misusing funds allocated for dam repairs.

    The two small dams near Derna, constructed with the assistance of engineers from the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s, were perched above the city and nestled at its outskirts. Multiple experts had repeatedly warned of the risk of flooding, with a 2022 academic study underscoring the high flood risk faced by the Wadi Derna basin, where the dams were located. Shockingly, the dams had not undergone maintenance since 2002, according to a Libyan official.

    Scientists stress that dams deteriorate over time, sinking under their own weight and gradually losing their capacity to contain water due to storm surges and other natural forces. Manoochehr Shirzaei, a geophysicist at Virginia Tech, noted that any dam left unattended for two decades becomes a recipe for disaster.

    As the storm approached, the response from authorities in Derna underscored the ineffectiveness of the institutions tasked with safeguarding the city. A Libyan NGO, the Raia Foundation for Space Sciences and its Applications issued a warning of the potential danger posed by the filling of the Wadi Derna Dam and the soil saturation with water. However, the evacuation order issued by Derna’s mayor was overruled by Haftar, who opted for a curfew and encouraged locals to remain indoors. His decision was met with a catastrophic outcome as the dams gave way to a deluge that shattered the city.

    Derna’s tragic ordeal serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of political discord, corruption, and negligence in a nation grappling with the aftermath of revolution and authoritarian rule. The path to recovery is laden with challenges, and the quest for accountability is just beginning, as Libya grapples with the aftermath of one of the deadliest disasters in its history.

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