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“A Calamity of Epic Proportions”: Death Toll from Libyan Floods Tops 6,000 in Latest Climate Disaster

Written by on 14/09/2023


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Libya, at least 6,000 are feared dead, thousands more remain missing, after a catastrophic flood in the eastern city of Derna. Torrential rains from Storm Daniel caused two dams to burst, wiping out whole sections of the city. Water reached 10 feet high in parts of the city. The United Nations has called the flood a, quote, “calamity of epic proportions.”

Rescue operations have had difficulty reaching Derna because there’s only one unobstructed road into the city. In front of Derna’s hospital, people are searching for their loved ones amidst piles of dead bodies lined up on the ground. This is the hospital’s manager, Mohamad al-Qabisi.

DR. MOHAMAD AL-QABISI: [translated] The number of dead in this particular section is 1,700 deaths so far. We counted them as they were lying in the hallways. Whoever is identified is then buried. There are some who have not been identified, so we started photographing them and assigning numbers to them, then burying them, as well. On the other side, they buried 500 people. Things are very bad. The hospital is dilapidated.

AMY GOODMAN: [Mustafa Salem], who lives in Derna, said many people were sleeping when the dams failed.

MUSTAFA SALEM: [translated] Then we heard that the dam had burst, and the water had flooded the area. People were asleep, and no one was ready. But this is what happens. What can we do? For me, my house is next to the valley, opposite the Al Sahaba Mosque. The whole family lives next to each other. We are all neighbors. We lost 30 people so far, 30 members of the same family. We haven’t found anyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Much of Libya’s infrastructure has crumbled since 2011, when the Obama administration and NATO backed an uprising against the longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi, setting off years of war and political upheaval. Derna’s mayor said the city’s dams have not been maintained in over 20 years. The flood was caused by a rare hurricane-like cyclone in the Mediterranean known as a “medicane.” It’s the same storm that brought unprecedented flooding to Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria last week.

The floods come just a week before a major summit on the climate crisis at the United Nations here in New York. Greenpeace International said, quote, “Governments must act now to end fossil fuels that are plunging us deeper into climate disaster every day.”

We go now to Libya, to the city of Tripoli, where we’re joined by the youth climate activist Nissa Bek.

Thanks so much for being with us. I know that Tripoli itself was not physically affected by this catastrophe in Derna, but if you can describe what you understand has happened there? I mean, we’re talking about 6,000, perhaps 10,000, people dead at this point, Nissa. Condolences.

NISSA BEK: Yes. Thank you so much.

First of all, allow me just to clarify that although Tripoli itself is not affected by this very specific event, it does not mean that the west part of Libya is usually not affected by heavy rainfalls or even other smaller storms. In fact, just last week, the city of Zliten, which is located in the western part of Libya, drowned completely. It was flooded completely just because of six hours of rain. And the whole flooding thing is not news to us. We’ve been struggling with this for years, because, as you mentioned, Libya is struggling with poor infrastructure, and it’s been like that for years, beyond actually the 2011 revolution, even during the times of Gaddafi. Most of the well-constructed buildings, we had them since the time of the Italian colonization. It was constructed by the Italian government over 100 years ago. Those remain until today. However, most of the structures that were built during the ’60s, it’s usually easily affected by rain or even simple weather changes.

As for what happened in Derna, it was actually expected. I have expected this to happen for the longest. You know, as a climate activist, I’m always pursuing government officials. I’m always doing my best to communicate whatever information that I have. This is not the first time that Derna goes through this. It went through it twice before in the past decade. It went through it in the ’40s and again in the ’80s. And just two years ago, Mr. Abd al-Aziz Ashour, who is a civil engineer, published a paper with the University of Sebha where he warned that both of the dams are very fragile, and he expected that they will be falling apart very soon. He also mentioned that we need to have a lot of tree planting in the area in order to combat the desertification, because all of the sand in the area or, like, the dry area will only make the flooding much worse. So it’s something that we have expected.

In fact, ever since this catastrophe happened, they talked about it a lot in the news from many different aspects, but not the climate aspect. They did not mention anything about climate change and in what ways the government is at fault at what happened, because, as we mentioned before, this is — Derna is like the fourth stop of the Daniel storm, OK? However, it’s the one that is most affected by it. So, just to give you bit of a background on the climate crisis here in Libya, Libya did sign the climate change framework back in 2015 with the U.N., and they did ratify the Paris Agreement back in 2021. However, although the government been active at COPs, they did not submit any of the necessary national determined contribution or the national adaptation plans. So, these documents supposed to include their risk reduction strategies, so in case something such as this happen, what will they be doing.

So, the thing is, most of the other countries already declared emergencies, and they did evacuations in advance. Libya did not. As they’ve seen the storm coming already, and we had — we knew that the storm was coming our way, on its way to the Libyan coast, the government did not announce emergency. They did not have any evacuation. Not to mention, it wasn’t until yesterday when the president came out and he mentioned and he said that, “Please stop sending medicine and food. We don’t actually need this type of aid. What we need is rescue teams, search teams, as well as aid flights.” So we’re talking about a country that does not even have an aid flight. So, when all the roads collapsed, they were not able to actually reach the people. So all of the aid that is being sent by the other countries is not even making it to the people. So, every minute passed without an aid flight or helicopters meant tens and thousands of other people dying. So, it took them two days to ask for that. And then they claimed on TV that, “Oh, yeah, we have a strategy, and we’re working on it right now.” But, obviously, they did not have a strategy. They do not have a plan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well —

NISSA BEK: So, this just shows you that — yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nissa Bek, I wanted to ask you: What has been the role of the Ministry of Environmental Affairs? And also, given the fact that for the past 10 years, ever since the killing of Gaddafi, Libya has been — has had to deal with competing or conflicting governments, two governments within the same country.

NISSA BEK: Yes, that did have an effect, logistical effect. For example, even the aid that Egypt is offering, they’re not actually communicating with the government that is acknowledged by the international community. They are in touch with General Haftar in the east, which is the government that is not recognized by the international community, which means that whatever agreement is taking place as we speak right now, the actual president of the country has no idea what is going on. So, in that sense, yes, it’s quite an issue logistically.

But like I said before, it’s mainly a climate and environmental issue, because, like I said, a huge part of climate or our strategy to combat climate or natural disasters is about the risk reduction strategies that’s supposed to be submitted during COPs, but they’re not submitting anything. As for the role of the Environmental Affairs Ministry, they’re supposed to be playing the biggest role in this, but they’re not playing any role at all. But to be completely honest, I have a source that told me that the minister of environmental affairs has been submitting a lot of projects and a lot of proposals to President Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh; however, he is the one who is rejecting all of those proposals. He just keeps postponing them. And therefore, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs is not receiving any funding. And according to the employees of the ministry, they haven’t received their paychecks for over two years. So they are working without getting paid. And it’s been like that for over two years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the reality that as Libya confronts the increasing dangers of the climate crisis, it still depends largely as a nation for its foreign income on oil and gas?

NISSA BEK: Yes. And we have spoken about that, you know? We’ve spoken a lot about that. And they’re still signing deals with countries such as Italy for the next 20 years and the next 30 years, so they don’t seem to take the whole climate issue seriously. And in fact, if you’ve spoken to any of the decision-makers regarding this, they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we understand. But we don’t have to worry about that now.” That’s usually their reply. And I’m hoping that this tragedy could be the turning point for all of this, and for them to actually take the climate crisis more seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: Nissa, rich countries agreed to establish a loss and damage fund at the close of last year’s U.N. climate summit in Egypt, dealing specifically with the Global South, the worst effects of the climate catastrophe. The fund was a major breakthrough for Global South countries, which have been demanding a similar mechanism for the last 30 years but faced opposition from the United States and other large polluting nations. What are your demands of wealthier nations?

NISSA BEK: To be completely honest, yes, the main issue or the root of the issue goes back to the polluting countries, such as the United States, but in this very specific situation, I cannot really say that it is their responsibility to fix what happened, because, like I mentioned earlier, it’s obviously our government’s fault.

And the problem with this fund, that it’s not going to bring the lives that we lost back. It is something that comes later on. You know, when it’s time to actually reconstruct Derna, a lot of these countries will be putting, you know, some funds in order to help us reconstruct it. But at what cost? I mean, at that point, we’ve already lost so many people, and we don’t know how many other people we’re going to lose in the upcoming few years if we don’t actually deal with the problems more seriously.

So, right now I cannot think of, like, “Oh, it’s because of the U.S., it’s because of China,” you know? I don’t have that kind of mindset. Right now it’s because of my own government. In the future, however, I really need all states, whether they’re from the Global South or the Global North, to take this fund seriously and, most importantly, take COP seriously, take their NDCs and NAP submissions more seriously. They’ve seen what happens when you don’t take it seriously. You need a risk reduction strategy. You need to, you know, put forward a plan on, like, what are we going to do in case this happens. You know, Libya has a very low level of precipitation. We don’t even have a lot of rainfall. And they’re like, “Flooding? What are the chances of us, you know, going through a flooding?” Well, there you go. So, that’s what I’m expecting. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nissa, I want to thank you so much for being with us. We’ll continue to follow what’s happening in Libya. Nissa Bek is a youth climate activist, joining us from Tripoli, Libya.

Coming up, “How Columbia University Ignored Women, Undermined Prosecutors and Protected a Predator for More Than 20 Years.” Stay with us.



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