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In corrupt Libya, long-standing warnings about collapsing Derna dams went unheeded

CAIRO (AP) — The warnings were clear but fell on deaf ears.

Experts have long said flooding posed a significant danger to two dams meant to protect nearly 90,000 people in the country’s northeast. Libya. They have repeatedly called for immediate maintenance of the two structures, located just upstream from the coastal town of Derna. But the successive governments of this North African country hit by chaos have not reacted.

“In the event of a major flood, the consequences will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city,” wrote Abdelwanees Ashoor, professor of civil engineering, in a study published last year in the Sabha University Journal of Pure and Applied. Sciences.

These warnings came to fruition in the early hours of September 11, when residents of Derna awoke to loud explosions before floodwaters hit the Mediterranean city. They found that two dams had broken, releasing a two-story high wall of water that wreaked destruction and swept entire neighborhoods out to sea.

The deluge proved deadly for thousands in just seconds, uprooting apartment buildings and washing away roads and bridges. More than 11,300 people are believed to have been killed, including foreignersand more than 10,000 people were still missing a week after the disaster, according to the Libyan Red Crescent and the United Nations.

Negligence and corruption are commonplace in Libya, a country of about 7 million people that relies on rich proven reserves of oil and natural gas. In 2022, the country ranked 171st out of 180 on the transparency index established by Transparency International.

The North African nation is in the nation has been in chaos since 2011When an Arab Spring uprisingsupported by NATO, ousted long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafiwho was then killed.

FILE – Flash flood victims are buried in Derna, Libya, September 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Murad, File)

The country has since been divided between rival administrations: one in the west, supported by a collection of armed groups and lawless militias, and the second in the east, allied with the so-called Libyan National Army, who is commanded by the powerful general Khalifa Hifter.

The Abu Mansour and Derna dams were built by a Yugoslav construction company in the 1970s above the Derna River, which divides the city. Abu Mansour, 14 kilometers (8.6 miles) from the city, was 74 meters (243 feet) high and could hold up to 22.5 million cubic meters of water. Derna Dam, also known as Belad, is much closer to the city and could hold 1.5 million cubic meters of water.

The dams, built from clay, rocks and earth, were intended to protect the city from flash floods, which are not uncommon in the region. Water collected behind the dams was used to irrigate crops downstream.

“The two dams have not been maintained for many years, despite repeated floods that hit the city in the past,” said Saleh Emhanna, a geology researcher at Ajdabia University in Libya. “They were dilapidated.”

FILE - People search for survivors in Derna, Libya, September 13, 2023. For years, experts have warned that flooding poses a significant danger to dams protecting nearly 90,000 people in northeastern Libya , repeatedly calling for immediate maintenance of the two structures outside the town of Derna.  But successive governments in the divided and chaos-stricken North African country have failed to heed their advice.  (AP Photo/Yousef Murad, file)

FILE – People search for survivors in Derna, Libya, September 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Murad, File)

The dams suffered major damage during a strong storm that hit the region in 1986, and more than a decade later a study commissioned by the Libyan government found cracks and fissures in their structures, said late the Attorney General of Libya, al-Sediq al-Sour. Friday.

At a news conference in the stricken city, al-Sour said prosecutors investigate the collapse of the two damsas well as the allocation of maintenance funds.

“I reassure citizens that whoever committed mistakes or negligence, prosecutors will definitely take firm action, initiate criminal proceedings against him and subject him to trial,” al-Sour said.

A 2021 state audit agency report said the two dams had not been maintained despite more than $2 million being allocated for the purpose in 2012 and 2013. No work was done in the area and the auditing agency blamed the Ministry of Works and Natural Resources for not canceling the contract and awarding it to a company that would carry out the work.

A Turkish company was contracted in 2007 to carry out maintenance on the two dams and build another dam in between. Arsel Construction Company Ltd. indicates on its website that it completed its work in November 2012.

Arsel was among dozens of Turkish companies that had projects worth more than $15 billion in Libya before the 2011 uprising. Many of these companies fled the Libyan chaos before returning over the past two years , particularly when the Turkish government intervened to help the Tripoli-based government repel an attack by Hifter’s forces in 2019.

Arsel did not respond to an email seeking further comment on the two dams. No third dam appears to have been built, recent satellite photos show.

Before Mediterranean Storm Daniel, authorities also issued mixed messages. They imposed a curfew in Derna and other eastern areas. The municipality of Derna published statements on its website calling on residents to evacuate coastal areas for fear of rising seas.

However, many residents reported receiving text messages on their phones urging them not to leave their homes.

Floods razed Derna and officials estimate that at least a quarter of the city has been wiped out. Such devastation reflects the intensity of the storm, but also Libya’s vulnerability. The country’s infrastructure has been largely neglected despite Libya’s oil wealth.

Al-Sour, the chief prosecutor, said prosecutors would investigate local authorities in Derna as well as previous governments. He appointed investigators from different parts of the country to carry out the investigation.

The eastern Libyan government has suspended the mayor of Derna, Abdel-Moneim al-Gaithi, pending an investigation into the disaster. The mayor did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Since 2014, eastern Libya has been under the control of Hifter and his forces. The rival government based in the capital, Tripoli, controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. Neither tolerates dissent.

Activists are calling for an international investigation, fearing that a local probe would be fruitless in a country largely ruled by armed groups and militias. The “predatory” behavior of these groups and militias has led to “the misappropriation of Libyan state funds and the deterioration of institutions and infrastructure”, according to a report from the UN group of experts.

Libya has suffered from weak public institutions, internal conflict and deep instability, which allowed corruption to flourish with little or no control over public sector abuses, according to Transparency International.

An online petition signed in recent days by hundreds of people, including Libyan rights groups and NGOs, said an independent international committee was needed to “discover the causes of this catastrophe” and hold those responsible to account. responsible.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said an investigation into the disaster would face enormous challenges because it could reach top officials in the West and from eastern Libya.

Such an investigation “could potentially reach the highest levels of accountability,” he said. “This presents a unique challenge.”

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