Talk of help for Libya must be followed by action

Several nations at the UN General Assembly rightly highlighted the importance of disaster response, but supporting countries devastated by floods, fires or earthquakes demands a long-term commitment

People gather for a demonstration in Libya's flood-hit eastern city of Derna on Monday. The country faces a range of short, medium and long-term challenges after Storm Daniel. AFP
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It has been less than two weeks since Storm Daniel blew in from the Mediterranean and led to one of the worst crises in Libya’s modern history. As the acute shock and horror of the deluge starts to recede, anger and frustration is setting in as it becomes clearer with each passing day that the country faces many challenges for which there is no quick fix.

At the UN General Assembly in New York, a rare case of international consensus emerged, as several countries set aside competing agendas to emphasise the need to tackle natural disasters, including those exacerbated by manmade climate change. Libya featured prominently, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres beginning his opening speech by focusing on the recent flooding, saying “many of the world’s challenges” had “coalesced in one awful hellscape”. Prominent leaders, such as US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – whose country was hit by a devastating earthquake in February – also used their UN speeches to refer to the dangers posed by natural disasters. Further statements on the topic are expected as the General Assembly continues.

It is critical that these statements of concern be translated into effective and sustained action. Libya, and the eastern city of Derna, in particular, have serious problems to resolve. First among these are disease control and providing security. With ruined infrastructure and a lack of sanitation, fears are growing that illnesses such as cholera will spread. As bodies of the estimated 4,000 dead continue to wash up on shore, Derna’s surviving residents have been told to wear masks and keep away from the water. At the same time, riots have broken out, with residents setting the mayor's house on fire amid protests against years of state inaction and negligence, particularly over two ageing dams that were unable to resist the flooding and were swept away, worsening the death and destruction.

Also swept away by the torrential waters were entire neighbourhoods of Derna. In the medium term, therefore, replacing emergency shelters with new housing will become a key priority. Then there are even longer-term objectives, such as fully rebuilding roads, schools, hospitals and other important infrastructure wrecked by Daniel. This will require consistent international input and reliable partners on the ground: Libya remains effectively partitioned into two antagonistic political entities, a state of affairs that is complicating the complex planning needed to rebuild effectively.

This is not to discount the considerable aid efforts made thus far by many countries, including the UAE, Greece and Egypt. The tragic deaths of five members of a Greek aid team in eastern Libya on Sunday when their vehicle was involved in a road accident also highlights the risks faced by humanitarian workers operating in the disaster zone. But to avoid parts of Libya sinking into further instability, the kind of support expressed at the UN must be backed up by action, not just now but in the months and years ahead.

Published: September 21, 2023, 3:00 AM