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Business News/ News / Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making

A Mediterranean city dotted with historic mosques and the ruins of a nearby Byzantine church, Derna was once a haven for artists and intellectuals in Libya. Now, it is a wasteland after a deadly storm caused floods that broke dams, swept entire buildings out to sea and killed thousands of people.

The natural disaster was decades in the making—a result of years of official neglect of two nearby dams during the authoritarian regime of Moammar Gadhafi and the political crisis and war since his ouster in a 2011 revolution.

The dams, built in the 1970s, hadn’t received maintenance work in more than 20 years, Libyan officials said. Some $1.3 million allocated for their upkeep had simply evaporated, according to a 2021 report from the Libyan State Audit Bureau reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and verified by Libyan officials. Storm Daniel, which produced record-breaking rainfall in Greece, overwhelmed the dams early on Monday after hitting eastern Libya, unleashing a torrent of water that swamped the nearby port city.

The disaster has killed an estimated 6,000 people, with thousands of others missing. Bodies were piling up on the streets and authorities and relatives buried many of the dead in collective graves. Derna’s mayor said Wednesday that as many as 20,000 could have died. On Thursday, Libya’s public prosecutor arrived in the city to carry out a criminal investigation aimed at holding account those responsible for not taking steps to avert the collapse of the dams.

For many ordinary Libyans, the deadly disaster has become a symbol of misrule in a country divided between two rival governments that have neglected the basic work of maintaining state institutions and services. It has also overwhelmed the capacity of local authorities, who are controlled by a Russian-backed militia leader, Khalifa Haftar.

“None of the governments in Libya are designed to govern," said Tarek Megrisi, a London-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, adding that they are just designed to take as much as they can while competing for power. “We’re 12 years deep into that now. We’ve had a lot of time to be a failed state."

Derna is at the center of the growing public angst against the ruling elite.

The city, which has suffered some of Libya’s worst violence in recent years, is a microcosm of how decades of authoritarian rule under Gadhafi and state erosion after the revolution yielded broken institutions and a legacy of corruption.

An early center of the protests against Gadhafi in 2011, Islamic State militants took control of the city in 2014. Egypt launched airstrikes on the city in response to the group. Haftar’s forces launched a campaign against militants in the city in 2018, resulting in a siege. Human rights groups accused Haftar’s forces of killing civilians and forcibly displacing thousands of people from their homes. Haftar’s militias deny the charges.

After Libyan officials agreed to form a short-lived unity government in 2021, the equivalent of $335 million was allocated from the state’s budget to rebuild the war-torn cities of Benghazi and Derna. Rather than being used to rebuild damaged buildings, much of the money became the subject of political dispute—the head of the fund overseeing the reconstruction split with the government in Tripoli in 2022. The fracas left parts of the city in disrepair and vulnerable to the coming flood.

Haftar’s isolated militia-led enclave is uniquely prone to corruption and neglect of public services, experts said, with an economy dominated by the armed forces. The region’s Military Investment Authority, a body controlled by Haftar’s forces, has a dominant role in the construction sector. Haftar’s forces also raise funds by smuggling people and weapons, seizing infrastructure, extorting businesses, and misappropriating state funds, according to anticorruption groups and experts. Haftar and his deputies reject accusations of corruption.

“It’s a mafia state," said Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “But blaming one person would not be correct. It’s a whole group of people."

The rival governments in Tripoli and the east both blame each other for the misuse of funds.

“What money was allocated [for the dams’ repair] was misappropriated and the rampant corruption shifted whatever money was spent to things that serve those holding the decision-making power," said Mohammed Ali Abdallah, the chairman of the Libyan Foreign Bank and the special envoy to the U.S. of the government in Tripoli.

The pair of small dams near Derna were built in the 1970s with the help of engineers from the former Yugoslavia. One dam was located in the hills above the city, with the other just steps away from the houses at the edge of Derna.

Experts had warned repeatedly of the risk of flooding. A 2022 academic study written by a professor of civil engineering at Libya’s Omar Al-Mukhtar University concluded that the dams in the area, known as the Wadi Derna basin, were at high risk of flooding and needed maintenance. A Libyan official said the dams hadn’t received maintenance since 2002.

Scientists say dams deteriorate over time, sinking under their own weight and slowly losing their ability to hold back the water due to storm surges and other natural forces.

“Like any other structure they begin to degrade in terms of quality," said Manoochehr Shirzaei, a geophysicist at Virginia Tech. “Any dam that was not maintained for two decades is a recipe for failure and disaster."

As the storm approached, the response from authorities illustrated the ineffectiveness of the institutions meant to serve the city.

On Saturday, the Raia Foundation for Space Sciences and its Applications, a Libyan NGO, warned of the “potential danger due to the filling of the Wadi Derna Dam" and the risk of “collapse due to the saturation of the soil with water."

“God only knows," the NGO said on social media.

Derna’s mayor, Abdul Moneem Al-Ghaithi, issued an order on his official Facebook account to evacuate parts of the city. He also sent excavators to move rocks to act as levees along the coastline—believing the worst risk of flooding would come from the sea.

But later that evening, the evacuation order was overruled by Haftar. Chairing a cabinet meeting late Saturday, the warlord said he had decided to stick to a curfew, granting a two-day vacation so that locals could stay at home, according to a video of the meeting posted on local media.

“We ask God [for the rain] to be very beneficial for the people of the region," he said.

Soon after, locals received a text message: “Stay at home," it said, according to a copy of the message seen by the Journal.

But after the storm made landfall the dams burst with the sound of an explosion early on Monday, residents said.

Khalid Jebril said his wife woke him up before dawn on Monday.

“She was screaming, ‘Explosion! Explosion! We couldn’t leave our building, four stories high. A second loud bang followed. When we eventually made it out seven hours later the buildings next to us were gone."

“All I can tell you is very quickly we had floods and water reached the second floor where I was," said Mohammed Kholi, an Egyptian construction worker living in Derna. “I lost my two brothers."

Meanwhile, in Tripoli, where an internationally recognized government was nominally in charge of Libya’s water infrastructure, the authorities showed no sign that they were aware of the risk of disaster.

“Dear citizens, please be informed that the dams are in good condition and things are still under control and there are no fears of collapse at this moment," the Ministry of Water Resources said in a statement at around midnight Sunday.

Late Wednesday, Mohamed Al-Menfi, Tripoli-based head of the Presidential Council, announced the public prosecutor would launch an investigation that would seek to hold accountable those who made mistakes or “neglected by abstaining or taking actions that resulted in the collapse of the dams in the city of Derna."

The Presidential Council chief also intends to call for an international, independent probe at the coming general assembly at the United Nations in New York, Libyan officials said.

Write to Jared Malsin at, Benoit Faucon at and Summer Said at

Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making
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Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making
Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making
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Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making
Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making
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Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making
Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making
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Libya Flood Disaster That Killed Thousands Was Decades in Making

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