Libya flood casualties could've been avoided, says UN

Warning systems could have helped authorities in Libya carry out better evacuations and save many more lives, the UN has said. Meanwhile, global aid efforts are intensifying.

The city of Derna in eastern Libya has been devasted by the catastrophe (photo: DW)
The city of Derna in eastern Libya has been devasted by the catastrophe (photo: DW)


The UN has said that a lack of adequate warning systems in the divided country meant the Libya floods caused many preventable deaths.

Fatality figures varied on Thursday,14 September with one report putting the toll far higher than others at more than 10,000, but around 10,000 are missing and the chances of finding surivors is deemed slim.

UN says most deaths could have been avoided

Petteri Taalas, head of the UN's World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told reporters in Geneva that most of the thousands of deaths in Libya's flood disaster could have been averted had there been adequate early warning and emergency management systems.

"If they would have been a normally operating meteorological service, they could have issued a warning," he said.

"The emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out evacuation of the people. And we could have avoided
most of the human casualties."

Libya's National Meteorological Centre (NMC) had issued extreme weather warnings some 72 hours in advance, and had also notified governmental authorities by email. However, the WMO said it was "not clear whether (the warnings) were effectively disseminated."

Aid coordinator warns of disease risks, water shortages

With thousands of survivors now sheltering in the few structures still standing in Derna, and with fresh drinking water unavailable, there is a real risk diseases such as cholera spreading in the city, according to Ahmed Bayram of the Norwegian Refugee Council's Libya Response Team.

"The disaster has destroyed almost all functioning water networks, there is no fresh water, there are power outages and the small number of buildings which remained standing are now sheltering a huge number of people," Bayram told DW from neighboring Tunisia.

"Such circumstances could contribute to the rapid spread of airborne and waterborne diseases such as cholera, as we have seen in conflict zones earlier this year and in settings where there is not enough hygienic preparation."

With winter just around the corner, Bayram said it was going to be a "very, very long journey back" for the people of Libya, who have already suffered enough and are now once again living in flimsy tents in refugee camps, exposed to the elements.

"Over the years, [Libyans] have shown resilience to overcome conflict and displacement, but this is going to set them back years," he said.

Death toll rising

Given the political divisions in Libya, with the epicenter of the disaster around Derna controlled by a separate regional administration to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, fatality figures on Thursday morning varied between 4,000 and 5,000 — but are expected to rise dramatically.

Ossama Ali, a spokesperson for an ambulance center in eastern Libya, told the Associated Press (AP) that at least 9,000 people were still missing, while Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, the mayor of Derna, predicted "18,000 to 20,000 deaths based on the destroyed districts in Derna" alone.

Up to a third of the port city was washed away when heavy rain from Mediterranean storm "Daniel" caused two dams above the city to burst. Floodwaters washed down Wadi Derna, a valley that cuts through the city, crumbling buildings and washing people out to sea.

According to local media, the dams, which were constructed in the 1970s, have not been properly maintained during years of civil war and unrest.

Elsewhere, the storm has claimed around 170 lives in the nearby towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz and Marj, according to the regional health minister, Othman Abduljaleel. Libyan media also said dozens of Sudanese migrants have been killed in the disaster.

Political turmoil and logistical challenges

With the North African country still divided by civil war and political turmoil between rival administrations, the already poverty-stricken population is almost entirely reliant on national and international aid. However, efforts are likely to be hampered by logistical challenges.

"Obstructed, destroyed and flooded roads severely undermine access to humanitarian actors," the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said, adding that there were widespread power outages and communications disruptions.

"The bridges over river Derna that connect the eastern part of the city to the west have collapsed," the IOM added.

'We need bags for the bodies'

After the raging floodwaters swept many people out to sea, bodies are constantly being washed up by the waves. "The sea is constantly dumping dozens of bodies," said Hichem Abu Chkiouat, the minister of civil aviation in the local administration.

"Bodies are everywhere, inside houses, in the streets, at sea," Emad al-Falah, an aid worker from Benghazi, told AP. "Wherever you go, you find dead men, women, and children."

"We actually need teams specialized in recovering bodies," said Derna mayor Al-Ghaithi. "I fear that the city will be infected with an epidemic due to the large number of bodies under the rubble and in the water."

Lutfi al-Misrati, a search team director, told Al Jazeera: "We need bags for the bodies."

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