Dire warnings about Libya dams went unheeded
“The state wasn’t interested,” said an engineer who published a paper on why Derna’s dams, after decades of postponed repairs, might fail under the stress of a powerful storm.
By AARON BOXERMAN and JAMES GLANZ
It had been clear for years that the dams protecting Derna, on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, were in danger of giving way.
Torrential rains were not new. Decade after decade, they had pounded the area, washing away the soil that helped soak up water as it ran down from the dry hills above town.
Climate change had also changed the land, making it drier, harder and increasingly shorn of vegetation, less able to absorb the water before it pooled up dangerously behind the dams.
Then, there were the decades of neglect by officials — who knew the dams needed repairs — in a country so torn by years of civil war that it still has two opposing governments: one in the west and another in the east, where Derna lies.
Academics had warned that it would not require a storm of biblical proportions to overwhelm the dams.
The residents of Derna are “extremely vulnerable to flood risk,” wrote Abdelwanees Ashoor, a hydraulic engineer at Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Libya, in a paper he published in 2022.
The kind of storms that had hit the area in recent decades — he cited a damaging flood in 1959 — could bring down the dams and inundate Derna, he warned, calling the situation “dangerous.”
This past week, those predictions grimly proved to be true, when enormous flooding from a powerful storm broke through both dams and swept parts of the city into the sea. Thousands are dead, and many more missing, according to authorities. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 34,000 people were displaced by the catastrophe.
Reached by phone, Ashoor said he had lost several members of his extended family to the flooding, adding that the government had ignored years of warnings — including his own paper.
“We’re living in shock. We can’t absorb what’s happening to us,” Ashoor said. “The state wasn’t interested in this. Instead, they guzzled money, practiced corruption and fought political squabbles.”
The dams had been built by engineers who had underestimated the amount of rain expected in the region, he argued. Making matters worse, the terrain had undergone a process of desertification, making it less porous and capable of absorbing runoff. Beyond that, local officials say the dams had barely been maintained since their construction in the late 1970s.
Ashoor said he had sent his paper to academic colleagues in the nation’s capital, Tripoli, and a senior dam expert in the United States said his conclusions appeared to be solid.
“He nailed it,” said Michael West, a retired principal at the engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner. “His main point is that the hydrologic design of those dams was inadequate, and they couldn’t handle the large-magnitude storms.
“It’s probably devastating to know you were right, plus the personal tragedy on top of that,” West added. “I can’t imagine how he’s feeling.”
Libya, an oil-rich nation on the shores of the Mediterranean, has been worn down by years of civil war and government misrule. Climate change only added to the strain, helping to turn the once-fertile terrain arid and desolate.
The two dams that towered over the city had been built with the help of engineers from the former Yugoslavia, according to experts. The larger one, known as Abu Mansour, stood 74 meters high and could hold up to 22.5 million cubic meters of water. The smaller one, al-Bilad, or simply Derna dam, was built on the city’s outskirts.
During the long, autocratic reign of Moammar Gadhafi, floods came and went, but the dams stood. In 1986, a major storm convulsed the region, damaging the dams and shearing soil from the ground. The structures were damaged, Ashoor said, but again they held.
Despite the stresses, repairs were minimal. In 1998, the Libyan government commissioned a study that revealed cracks and fissures in the dams, said Attorney General Sadiq al-Soor.
Nearly 10 years later, a Turkish company was finally contracted to repair the dams, the prosecutor added. But the government dragged its feet in paying, and the project got underway only in 2010, al-Soor told reporters Friday.
Just four months later, in 2011, Libyans marched against Gadhafi’s 42-year grip on power, inspired by the uprisings that had toppled Arab autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt. When he threatened to annihilate the opposition, NATO intervened and bombed his forces, with the United States a backbone of the operation. Gadhafi was ousted from Tripoli that August.
In the tumult, work on the dam ceased, al-Soor said.
He pledged that authorities would take “firm measures” against anyone deemed responsible for failing to properly maintain the two dams. “This is extremely important for protecting the rights of the victims and to determine who was responsible — if there was neglect or dereliction of duty,” said al-Soor.
He said authorities had appointed prosecutors from different parts of Libya to investigate what caused the dams to collapse, inspect houses and determine whether maintenance measures could have prevented the disaster.
More than a decade after Gadhafi’s chaotic ouster, the country remains split between an internationally recognized government in the west and one under Khalifa Hifter, a military commander who controls the east, including Derna.
Derna was a key battleground during the country’s civil war, which saw the city fall under the control of Islamic militias. After a protracted siege, forces loyal to Hifter declared victory in 2018, although skirmishes continued for several months.
All the while, the neglect of the dams continued.
According to a 2021 report by Libyan state auditors in the west of the country, more than $2.3 million allocated for maintaining the two dams was simply never used. They called it a case of government negligence.
In a televised speech Thursday, Aguila Saleh, speaker of the parliament in the nation’s east, sought to bat away accusations that the scale of the devastation was rooted in government mismanagement and neglect.
“Don’t say, ‘If only we’d done this, if only we’d done that,’” Saleh said. “What took place in our country was an incomparable natural disaster.”
Ashoor acknowledged that the flood was prompted by a giant storm rarely seen in the country. But he believes authorities could have done far more to minimize the risk.
“Political strife, two governments, all of the wars we’ve seen since 2011, terrorism, all the problems we’ve faced,” Ashoor said. “All of this gathered together to lead to this deteriorating disaster, this calamity we’re living through. May God ease this crisis.”