Experts say that a deadly trifecta of climate change, ongoing civil unrest, and international sanctions are behind some of Libya’s worst-ever flooding, which has claimed over 5,000 lives and left another 10,000 missing.
Libya is grappling with the aftermath of its worst flooding in history, and experts believe the catastrophe was inflamed by a confluence of climate change, civil war, and international sanctions.
A team of researchers from World Weather Attribution which looked into the cause of the disaster found that climate change increased the likelihood of the levels of rainfall which devastated the Mediterranean in early September by up to 50 times in Libya and up to ten times in Greece.
They also emphasised that Libya’s Derna residents were made more vulnerable as a result of factors such as building homes on floodplains, felling trees and failing to maintain dams.
Researchers consulted by the scientific journal Nature attribute the severity of the floods to this devastating trio. “It’s the curse of war and weather,” articulated Mark Zeitoun, Director-General of the Geneva Water Hub.
Official reports indicate that the flood has already led to more than 3,800 confirmed deaths, a figure expected to rise as at least another 10,000 people remain missing.
The flooding began on 11 September and escalated when two dams in the city of Derna collapsed, releasing a staggering 30 million cubic metres of water. Several other Libyan cities and towns have also been severely affected.
The immediate cause of the flooding was an extraordinary deluge, with precipitation levels equivalent to an entire year’s rainfall occurring within just 24 hours.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) based in Geneva recorded rainfall levels ranging between 150-240 millimetres in numerous areas of Libya. The town of Al-Bayda reported an unprecedented 414.1 millimetres in one day, breaking all previous records.
According to flooding specialists, climate change intensified this already severe weather event by supercharging Storm Daniel, a low-pressure system originating over the Mediterranean Sea on 4 September.
The storm had previously wreaked havoc in Greece, causing record-breaking rainfall there before evolving into a ‘Medicane’—a Mediterranean cyclone with hurricane-like characteristics—and making landfall in Libya.
The WMO confirmed that the storm was held in place for several days by an ‘omega block’—a specific pattern in which the jet stream bends into a shape resembling the Greek letter omega.
The National Meteorological Centre in Tripoli issued severe-storm warnings 72 hours prior to the landfall of Storm Daniel, and an emergency was declared in eastern Libya. However, despite these warnings, the emergency response was largely ineffective, further complicating the crisis.
Jasper Knight, a geoscientist at the University of the Witwatersrand, emphasised to Nature journal that this level of rainfall and consequent flooding is unparalleled in Libyan history. The country, normally shielded from Atlantic storms by the Atlas Mountains, is mostly influenced by Mediterranean weather.
“When you go further inland, it gets very dry very quickly,” Knight pointed out, indicating the challenges of confronting such extraordinary events.
Libya’s political instability also exacerbated the crisis. Following the ousting of military leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the country plunged into a civil war and became subject to international sanctions.
The country’s struggling economy and governance crisis, with two rival governments in place, have further destabilised critical infrastructures, including flood defences and dam maintenance.
“If the country had been better prepared in terms of preparedness and response plans, 5,000 people wouldn’t be dead now,” concluded Zeitoun, he said, referencing to another death toll.