World in View: Libya: the ‘natural disaster’ that was not natural

September 22, 2023

by Eugene Walker

We’re living in shock. We can’t absorb what’s happening to us…The state wasn’t interested in this. Instead, they guzzled money, practiced corruption and fought political squabbles.

—Dr. Abdelwanees Ashoor, author of scientific paper
in 2022 warning of Derna dams’ probable collapse

As The New York Times reported, when torrential rains on Sept. 12-13 caused the collapse of two dams constructed of clay and rock in the late 1970s, it was quickly categorized as a “natural disaster.” There was horrendous loss of life: perhaps 11,000-plus people were swept away in the flood with over 30,000 people displaced, and the destruction of much of the Libyan port city of Derna. That destruction included hundreds of buildings, roads and bridges. But the question is: how “natural” was this disaster?

In reality, climate change—itself driven by industrial capitalism’s (private and state) werewolf appetite for production and more production throughout the 20th Century—has been making such storms more frequent. In Libya the storms swept away soil which can absorb water, making the land drier, thus stripping the area of vegetation that could hold moisture. Most decisive, that excess storm water was pooling behind two dams that had been built decades before and were known to be in need of extensive repair. That repair was never carried out.

In 2022, Dr. A. Ashoor. a hydraulic engineer, wrote that the population of Derna was “extremely vulnerable to flood risk.” He called the situation “dangerous,” and sent his paper to academics in the capital, Tripoli, as well as abroad. His main point was that the hydrological design of the dams was inadequate.


While plans had been made to repair the dams decades ago, nothing was begun until 2010. However, four months later, Libyans, inspired by the Arab Spring events in Tunisia and Egypt, moved to confront Libya’s long-time ruler Colonel el-Qaddafi. In the chaotic conditions that followed, NATO bombing led by the U.S. spurred the overthrow of Qaddafi. But the subsequent emergence of warring factions, which continues today, led to work on the dams being stopped and it never resumed.

As Dr. Ashoor noted: “Political strife, two governments, all of the wars we’ve seen since 2011, terrorism, all the problems we’ve faced. All of this gathered together to lead to this deteriorating disaster, this calamity we’re living through.”

One week after the dam collapse, Derna residents organized a protest demonstration against government authorities. Hundreds gathered at a mosque in the city, blamed the authorities for the destruction, and then set fire to the mayor’s house. Protesters are demanding an independent investigation of the cause of the dam collapse and international supervision of rebuilding. The government responded by ordering journalists to leave Derna and shutting down the Internet and other communications. A government spokesman insisted the collapse was “a natural disaster.”

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