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Warnings about Libya dams went unheeded

There were the decades of neglect by officials — who knew the dams needed repairs — in a country so torn by years of civil war

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.

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.

The two dams that towered over the city had been built with the help of engineers from the former Yugoslavia, according to experts.

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 said.

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.

More than a decade after Gadhafi’s chaotic ouster, the country remains split between an internationally recognised 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 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. — The New York Times

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