DERNA, Libya — Libyan authorities opened an investigation into the collapse of two dams that caused devastating flooding in a coastal town as rescue teams searched for bodies Saturday, nearly a week after the deluge killed more than 11,000 people.
It is unclear how such an investigation can be carried out in the North African country, which plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. During For most of the past decade, Libya has been divided between rival administrations – one in the east, one in the west – each backed by powerful militias and international patrons.
One consequence has been the neglect of crucial infrastructure, even as climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent and severe.
Heavy rains from Mediterranean Storm Daniel caused deadly flooding in eastern Libya last weekend. The floods overwhelmed two dams, sending a wall of water several meters high across the center of Derna, destroying entire neighborhoods and sweeping residents into the sea.
More than 10,000 people are missing, according to the Libyan Red Crescent. Six days later, searchers continue to dig through the mud and hollowed-out buildings, searching for bodies and possible survivors. The Red Crescent has confirmed 11,300 deaths so far.
Claire Nicolet, who heads the emergency department at aid group Doctors Without Borders, said rescuers found “a lot of bodies” on Friday and were still searching.
“It was a large number… the sea unfortunately continues to eject a lot of bodies,” she told The Associated Press.
She said major aid efforts were still needed, including urgent psychological support for those who lost their families. She said burying bodies remains a significant challenge, but progress has been made in coordinating search and rescue efforts and distributing aid.
Authorities and humanitarian groups have expressed concern about the spread of waterborne diseases and the movement of explosive munitions from recent conflicts in Libya.
Haider al-Saeih, head of Libya’s disease control center, said in televised remarks Saturday that at least 150 people had suffered from diarrhea after drinking contaminated water in Derna. He urged residents to drink only bottled water, which is being shipped as part of relief efforts.
READ: How the chaos in Libya exposed its population to deadly floods
Libya’s Attorney General al-Sediq al-Sour said prosecutors would investigate the collapse of the two dams, built in the 1970s, as well as the allocation of maintenance funds. He said prosecutors would investigate the city’s local authorities, as well as previous governments.
“I reassure citizens that whoever has committed mistakes or negligence, prosecutors will definitely take firm action, file charges against him and put him to trial,” he said at a conference on Friday press office in Derna. He said the investigation would include investigators from different parts of the country.
Such an investigation would face major obstacles given Libya’s continuing political division, although the devastation brought a rare moment of unity, with Libyans on both sides quickly pouring aid into Derna.
Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, said an investigation could pose “a unique challenge” for judicial authorities because it could lead to the highest ranks of leaders from the East and the East. western Libya.
READ: Researchers rush to find bodies in Libya as flood death toll reaches 5,100
Later on Saturday, a local television station reported that Derna Mayor Abdel-Moneim al-Gaithi had been suspended pending an investigation into the disaster, in accordance with a government decree dated September 14.
Ahmed Amdour was named interim mayor of the stricken town, the channel said.
Since 2014, eastern Libya has been under the control of General Khalifa Hifter and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army. A rival government, based in the capital, Tripoli, controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. Neither tolerates dissent.
“The main challenge to a thorough investigation is the long-standing behavior of the Hifter coalition; its historical lack of broader accountability could hinder the discovery of truths,” Harchaoui said.
During a visit to Derna on Friday, Hifter promised promotions to all military personnel involved in relief efforts.
Local authorities in the city warned the population of the arrival of the storm and ordered residents last Saturday to evacuate coastal areas of Derna, fearing rising waters. But there was no warning about the dams, which collapsed early Monday while most residents were asleep at home.
READ: DFAE: no Filipino in Libya asks to leave despite the floods
A report from a public auditing body published in 2021 indicated that the two dams had not been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million for this purpose in 2012 and 2013.
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. said on its website that it completed its work in November 2012. It did not respond to an email seeking further comment.
Meanwhile, local and international rescue teams worked around the clock, searching for bodies and possible survivors in the town of 90,000.
Ayoub said his father and nephew died Monday in Derna, a day after the family fled flooding in the nearby town of Bayda. He said his mother and sister ran upstairs to the roof but the others didn’t make it.
“I found the child in the water next to his grandfather,” said Ayoub, who only gave his first name. “I walk around and I still don’t believe what happened.”
READ: A district of the Libyan city destroyed by the rupture of a dam, 1,000 bodies found so far
Al-Sour, the attorney general, called on residents whose loved ones have disappeared to come forward to a forensic committee tasked with documenting and identifying the bodies found.
Libyan authorities have restricted access to the flooded town to make it easier for searchers to dig through mud and hollowed-out buildings to find the more than 10,000 people still missing. Many bodies were believed to have been buried under rubble or washed into the Mediterranean Sea, they said.
The storm affected other areas of eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Marj and Shahatt. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in the region and have taken shelter in schools and other government buildings.
Dozens of foreigners were among those killed, including people who had fled war and unrest elsewhere in the region. Others had come to Libya to work or were traveling there hoping to migrate to Europe. At least 74 men from an Egyptian village died in the floods, along with dozens of people who had traveled to Libya from war-torn Syria.
Maltese authorities said they discovered more than 80 bodies during land and sea searches on Friday. One person was found alive 10 nautical miles, or about 11 miles, off the coast of Derna. The Maltese armed forces have been participating in relief efforts in Libya since Wednesday.
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