Warmer sea waters, political chaos, and poor infrastructure are the root causes of the recent devastating floods in Libya, which have claimed the lives of at least 11,000 people, according to experts.
During the night from Sunday to Monday, the two dams in Derna, located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, failed. These powerful torrents obliterated bridges and engulfed entire neighbourhoods along with their residents. This disaster marks the worst natural catastrophe to hit Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, since the major earthquake that struck the city of Al-Marj in 1963.
Storm Daniel formed around September 4, causing casualties and extensive damage in Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey before making landfall in Libya. These Mediterranean storms, bearing characteristics of cyclones and tropical hurricanes, occur only 1-3 times a year. These storms require a flow of heat and moisture, which is amplified by the elevated temperatures of the surface waters in the sea. Over the past several weeks, the surface waters of the eastern Mediterranean and the Atlantic have been two to three degrees Celsius warmer than usual. Consequently, these surface waters are more prone to triggering intense precipitation. Climate researchers noted there is a direct correlation between the increase in precipitation volume and flooding. Local weather conditions also play a significant role, such a storm resulting from the persistent blocking of a high-pressure atmospheric front, which is currently dissipating.
These experts also acknowledged the difficulty of predicting whether such events will become more frequent in the future. According to certain models, climate change could reduce the number of storms in the Mediterranean Sea but intensify their impact. Most scientists hesitate to establish direct links between individual weather events and long-term climate change. However, Storm Daniel illustrates the type of devastating flooding we can increasingly expect in the future as the planet warms.
Nevertheless, climate change alone does not account for the full extent of the disaster in Libya. Some analysts believe that the fragmented political landscape in Libya, torn apart by more than a decade of civil war following the assassination of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled from 1969 to 2011, has also contributed to this catastrophe. Libya is currently divided between two rival administrations: the internationally recognized administration by the UN, based in the capital, Tripoli, and a separate administration in the eastern region, which has been severely affected by the floods.
While it is true that climate change may lead to more frequent, unpredictable, and violent extreme weather events that can surpass the capacity of our existing infrastructure and systems. Social, political, and economic factors determine which regions are more vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events. The loss of life is also a consequence of the limited forecasting capabilities, warning and evacuation systems in Libya, along with deficiencies in planning and infrastructure and city design standards.
The United Nations recently declared that many of the death could have been avoided. Petteri Taalas, the head of the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization, emphasized that with more effective coordination in the crisis-ridden country, “they could have issued timely warnings, enabling emergency management forces to conduct evacuations, and we could have prevented the majority of human casualties.”