More than 11,300 people are confirmed to have died in the floods that struck eastern Libya on 11 September 11 2023, far surpassing many estimates of the death toll in the country’s 2011 civil war. Thousands are still missing. Flooding has washed away approximately 25% of the city of Derna, and damage to roads and bridges is curtailing emergency service access. A rapid attribution study estimated that the extreme rain was at least a “1-in-300 year event.” This is far beyond previously recorded incidents, yet such incidents are now up to 50 times more likely—and up to 50% more intense—when compared to a 1.2°C cooler climate.
Political fragmentation has added complexity to humanitarian aid deliveries and rescue missions in Libya. Yet despite significant barriers, search and rescue is ongoing as aid pours into that nation’s affected regions from all around the world. Collaboration has even occurred between Libya’s warring powers, as the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has sent 80 doctors sand delivered body bags and 14 tons of medical supplies to its political rivals in eastern Libya.
Yet recovery in Libya will be a tense and fraught process. Already, there have been reports that “communications went down, some journalists were pushed out and a U.N. aid team was blocked from the flood-hit city of Derna on Tuesday, as the authorities sought to contain public anger over the failure to prevent Libya's worst ever natural disaster.”’
Such events do not bode well for the de-escalation that will be necessary to help Libya recover. So, what can be done to make aid flows and rebuilding more sensitive to the ongoing conflict and the larger trajectory of climate impacts that intensify such disasters?
A Challenging Landscape
Navigating the ongoing conflict is a key challenge in the initial response to September’s disaster. Libya’s eastern regions are under the control of notorious Libyan National Army leader, Khalifa Haftar. Since 2014, Haftar and the UN-supported government have competed for territory and influence, continuing a conflict that began with the NATO-led uprising against General Qaddafi in 2011.
The costs have been immense. Between 2011 and 2021, the conflict has caused thousands of deaths. Libya also has forfeited an estimated hundreds of billions in US dollars inlost economic potential. Extensive oil and gas revenues were sequestered and put at the disposal of the conflict and its elite beneficiaries, as critical infrastructure (like the Wadi Derna dam) fell into disrepair. By 2021, more than 800,000 people in Libya needed humanitarian aid.
In times of great humanitarian need, parties to conflict have been known to leverage the chaos of a disaster (and the influx of foreign funds) for their own political and military ends. Libya’s warring groups could vie to distribute aid to bolster their own legitimacy, or even to conserve funds for other projects – as was seen in Syria earlier this year. In Derna, aid workers have already reported being harassed by armed groups. Emergency efforts in response to Libya’s latest disaster must be impartialand perceived as impartial—to ensure the disaster doesn’t exacerbate conflict.
Many international organizations are well versed in this kind of relief, with NGOs such as the International Red Cross guided by their founding humanitarian principles within conflict contexts. However, given that Libya’s leaders in the flood-affected areas are parties to the conflict, neutrality will be a major challenge. Political leaders in Haftar’s regime do not have a good legacy with regards to humanitarian action, and Derna’s mayor has been accused of misappropriating reconstruction funds in 2021. The GNA’s delivery of aid and personnel is a good sign but no guarantee that collaboration will continue as the crisis develops in the coming weeks and months.
This situation means that responses must be intentional and strategic, as extreme weather events in combination with weak institutions are likely to overwhelm governmental and societal capacity, further challenging government effectiveness and legitimacy.
Catastrophe Does Not Always Bring Unity
Researchers also have pointed out that mobilization following an environmental disaster has at times helped to create a sense of national unity that facilitates peacebuilding. Indonesia is a key example of this kind of outcome, as the tragedy involving a 2004 tsunami accelerated negotiations between combatants and eventually led to peace. (Indonesia is not typical, however; the same 2004 tsunami led to more conflict in nearby Sri Lanka.)
With no predetermined path for recovery following a catastrophe, the aftermath of such disasters ultimately depends on a range of policy dynamics. In particular, it requires a willingness from politicians to use the occasion to build peace, rather than further divisive political agendas.
The likelihood that leaders in Libya will opt for peace in this crisis seems dubious, however. Agila Saleh, the leader of Libya’s House of Representatives, appeared on television to state that the dam burst was a “natural” catastrophe for which no one deserves blame—rather than the avertible outcome of negligence and conflict in an escalating climate crisis.
Hurricanes are not the only climate security risks that Libya is facing. Both Libya and the southern Mediterranean are warming more quickly than average, resulting in even drier summers and more intense rains in the winter. Libya’s population is also extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, and is increasingly susceptible to storm surges. These events could cause damage to the country’s already weak infrastructure—including an already insufficient number of hospitals. And the increasing climate crisis brings about more disasters on a more frequent basis and more intense disasters, the demand for medical care will increase.
Libya also faces additional climate-security risks outlined in a recent report by the Climate Security Expert Network. There is a potential competition over shrinking water resources, and the consequences of the global energy transition for countries largely reliant on fossil fuel exports. The country also faces multiple displacement crises, including as an increase in migrants attempting to reach Europe through unsafe means. Even migrants in Libya are still vulnerable to exploitation that includes forced labor and systematic abuse.
Avoiding the Worst is Possible
In Libya as elsewhere, recovery pathways need to consider conflict dynamics and climate change to build resilience for a future that will see more frequent bouts of intense storms. Dams and other critical infrastructure should be built according to the requirements of current and future precipitation patterns.
Just as climate change is avoidable, its devastating impacts are not guaranteed. Rather than unique, unforeseen events, disasters are the result of long processes. Yet within these processes there are many possibilities to alter the trajectories and outcomes. High levels of precipitation do not become disasters until they interact with human systems—which expose not only infrastructural errors, but also the leadership apathy and the governance vacuums of states consumed by conflict.
And even after catastrophes occur, their impacts on conflict are also not predetermined. They are contingent upon the impact the disaster has on power balances—as well as the extent to which donors consider changing, complex conflict dynamics in forging a response.
Instead of accepting the tragedy of Derna as ‘fate’, Libya and the international community need to engender a greater awareness of both the climate security risks and the concrete, strategic action that can be taken to assist the affected communities in Derna, Libya, and elsewhere.
This article originally appeared on newsecuritybeat.org.
Sinéad Barry is an Analyst for climate change, peace and security at adelphi. Her work focuses on the environment, conflict, and non-state armed groups across a range of contexts, with a particular interest in the SWANA region.
Alexandra Steinkraus is an Analyst in climate diplomacy and security at adelphi. Her work focuses on how to better communicate the impacts of climate change on international peace and security through diplomacy and development approaches.
Benjamin Pohl is Head of Programme Climate Diplomacy and Security at adelphi. His work focuses on fragile contexts and transboundary water management challenges in regions such as Central Asia, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
Sources: adelphi; Africa News; BBC; Foreign Policy; Global Initiative; ICRC; Journal of Peace Research; Lawfare; Reuters; Science; SIPRI; SWP; UNESCWA; World Weather Attribution