Libya floods: rescue efforts in Derna 'hampered by lack of centralised plan'

Thousands still missing and vacuum being filled by aid agencies

Rescuers gather in Libya's port city of Derna. A wall of water from two collapsed dams washed entire neighbourhoods into the Mediterranean, killing thousands. EPA
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Efforts to find the thousands of people still missing around the Libyan port city of Derna are chaotic and lack centralised co-ordination, experts and rescue workers have said, five days after the area was hit by floods that killed thousands.

The North African country is being ruled by two rival administrations. The lack of co-ordination between the rival governments has complicated the organisation of relief efforts.

"Despite some improvement, the situation remains chaotic and lacks a very clear central structure that's able to handle the issue of search, rescue, identification of bodies, burial and public health issues and diseases that are at risk of spreading while dealing with survivors and their needs as well as the delivering of aid," said Mohammed Eljarh, managing partner at Libya Desk Consultants.

"So it’s not the fact that there’s a shortage [of aid] but utter incompetence in managing the process, by authorities," Mr Eljarh told The National, hours after he had left Derna.

An international aid worker confirmed that while different groups are co-ordinating their efforts individually, there was no centralised steering committee to oversee the rescue efforts.

Libyan authorities have been accused of neglecting the maintenance of two dams which burst, sending a deadly deluge of water into the city, and of mismanaging the response to the disaster.

On Thursday, the UN's World Meteorological Organisation said most of the deaths could have been avoided if Libya had better early warning and emergency management systems that allowed authorities to carry out evacuations.

Although Derna's Security Directorate warned people of approaching bad weather before the storm, it ordered residents to stay at home and imposed a curfew that lasted from September 10 until the following morning. This meant many Derna residents were trapped in their homes rather than evacuated when the city was hit by flooding.

Mr Eljarh echoed the criticisms of the authorities.

"If there was good governance, many deaths would have been avoided, first by ensuring proper maintenance and inspection of infrastructure and make sure it would not pose as much a risk and threat when such storms hit. Secondly, the responsibility to protect people immediately before the storm hit through mandatory evacuations. Both of these have not happened," Mr Eljarh said.

"Libya has spent hundreds of billions in budgets since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, but the cheapest thing in Libya is human life. This is what the catastrophic and largely manmade tragedy."

Despite the breakdown in the government response, Mr Eljarh praised the Libyan public for acts of solidarity and said people had travelled from other parts of the country to help out.

'Rotting corpses everywhere'

As they continue to assess the situation, aid workers say the sheer scale of the crisis is becoming clearer.

"[People's] needs are major. They're big and mounting day by day," Bashir Ben Amer, pharmaceutical manager for the International Rescue Committee told The National from Benghazi, which is the co-ordination hub for humanitarian assistance in Derna.

"People are either looking for their loved ones or burying them, as the sea continues to bring in more bodies."

"Hospitals are full of unknown corpses. Pictures are being taken of the unknown, before they are buried ... It's overwhelming."

The International Rescue Committee is working on designing a response that is "efficient and well-integrated between sectors" like health, shelter, infrastructure and communication, Mr Ben Amer said.

But despite efforts to co-ordinate the response, the situation remains bleak.

"You can smell death some seven or eight kilometres outside the city," Mr Eljarh said.

"There are rotting corpses everywhere."

Updated: September 16, 2023, 8:18 AM