The situation in Derna, the Libyan port city where two dams burst over the weekend, has been described as “disastrous beyond comprehension”, as the Red Cross and local officials said at least 10,000 people were missing after the devastating floods.
The confirmed death toll has exceeded 5,300, Mohammed Abu-Lamousha, a spokesperson for the administration that controls the east of Libya told a state-run news agency late on Tuesday.
Tariq al-Kharraz, another representative of the Eastern government, said that entire neighbourhoods had been washed away, with many bodies swept out to sea.
Hundreds of bodies were piled up in cemeteries with few survivors able to identify them, according to Kharraz, who said he expected the death toll to rise above 10,000 people – a figure also quoted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Hichem Chkiouat, the minister of civil aviation, said many of the dead remained where the water left them: “Bodies are lying everywhere – in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings,” Chkiouat told Reuters by phone after a visit to the city. “I am not exaggerating when I say that 25% of the city has disappeared. Many, many buildings have collapsed.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council said tens of thousands of people had been displaced with no prospect of going back home.
“Our team in Libya is reporting a disastrous situation for some of the most impoverished communities along the north coast. Entire villages have been overwhelmed by the floods and the death toll continues to rise,” it said.
Engineers had previously issued generalised warnings about the risk of the dams bursting, and the urgent need to strengthen their defences.
Anas El-Gomati, the founder of the Libya-based Sadeq think-tank, said a political inquest would be necessary. “North Africa is not immune to climate change, but this is also about corruption and incompetence. In Morocco perhaps you had seconds or minutes when the tectonic plates moved, but here in Libya there was plenty of warning about this hurricane … yet there was no evacuation of Derna – and now a quarter of the city’s population are under water.”
A 2022 report in an academic journal had warned that if a flood equivalent to one in 1959 was repeated, it would be “likely to cause one of the 2 dams to collapse, making the residents of the valley and the city of Derna vulnerable due to a high risk of flooding”.
Oil-rich Libya has been riven by political infighting, corruption and external interference since a 2011 uprising that toppled and later led to the death of the longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
Attempts stretching back a decade to form a unified functioning government have failed, and instead 2 rival governments backed by their own militias are based in Tripoli in the west and Tobruk in the east.
Investment in roads and public services has dwindled and there has been minimal regulation of private building.
Derna was for several years controlled by Islamist militant groups until it was captured in 2019 by Gen Khalifa Haftar, the warlord in charge of an army in the East.
Since then, the eastern government has been suspicious of the city and sidelined its residents, said Jalel Harchaoui, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for defence and security studies.
An emergency medical supply plane carrying fourteen tonnes of supplies, medication, equipment, body bags and 87 medical and paramedic personnel was heading to Benghazi to support the areas affected by the flood, the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, said on Tuesday.
The flooding caused by Storm Daniel led to a complete break in communications and cut off internet access in Derna. Entire neighbourhoods by the bank of a swollen river had been ravaged and washed away.
One resident, Hudhayfah al-Hasadi, told Al-Hurra: “The depths of some of the valleys in which water collects reach about 400 metres. Therefore, when the dam collapsed, the water was released like an atomic bomb, and eight bridges and residential buildings collapsed completely.”
A spokesperson for the Libyan Emergency Authority, Osama Ali, said: “All the water headed to an area near Derna, which is a mountainous coastal area. Houses in the valleys that were on the flood line were swept away by strong currents of muddy water that carried vehicles and debris.”
He added: “Weather conditions were not studied well, sea water levels, rainfall and wind speed, and there was no evacuation of families who could be in the path of the storm and in the valleys.”
There were conflicting reports as to whether requests had been made to evacuate the city at the weekend, and if so why the plan was rejected.