Libya floods: a disaster caused by capitalist barbarism

“In Derna, death is everywhere. The people here told us Derna was the most beautiful city in Libya. Today, you walk through it and see nothing but mud, silt, and demolished houses. The smell of corpses is everywhere, the smell of death from the sea, where thousands of decomposed corpses have been swept away.” These were the words of Raed Qazmouz, head of a Palestinian rescue team, to Al Jazeera.

Derna is a city in Cyrenaica, an eastern region of Libya. It has a population of around 100,000. On the night of 10-11 September, it was completely submerged by the floods caused by Cyclone Daniel. According to the United Nations, 11,300 people are dead and more than 10,000 are missing. Almost a quarter of the city's population has disappeared.

The city received 420 millimetres of rain in 24 hours, compared to an annual average of 350 millimetres. On the coast, winds of up to 180 kilometres per hour were recorded. Cyclone Daniel developed into a subtropical cyclone, a so-called “Medicane” (a term created by merging the words Mediterranean and hurricane), whose effects were also felt in Greece and Turkey. 

Over the past 15 years, the probability of a Medicane forming in the late summer-autumn season has tripled. We used to see one every four-to-five years, but now the frequency is one every year and a half. It is another effect of global warming, caused by the rapacious capitalist exploitation of the planet’s resources. But this alone does not explain the extent of the tragedy.

Global warming and collapse of the infrastructures

As Antonello Pasini, researcher for the Cnr-Isac (an Italian climate monitoring body) said to Il Manifesto:

“These particularly violent events are favoured by the extremely warm sea: water vapour molecules are the building blocks on which clouds are constructed, i.e. there is more material for their formation. In addition, the sea releases heat into the atmosphere, a form of energy that, according to the laws of thermodynamics, the atmosphere cannot retain and which is therefore discharged to the surrounding area.” 

Two dams were built in the 1970s by a Yugoslav company, not to collect water, but to protect Derna from the floods. Prior to their construction, Derna had been repeatedly hit by massive flooding between the 1940s and 1960s.

In 2007, the Gaddafi regime contracted a Turkish company to carry out repairs, which did not begin until October 2010, only to be suspended five months later as the country descended into revolution and civil war in 2011.

In a study published in November 2022, Libyan engineer and university lecturer Abdel-Wanis Ashour warned of a "catastrophe" threatening Derna if the authorities did not carry out the maintenance. In short, this was a predicted disaster in which western imperialism cannot claim innocence. 

It was the imperialist NATO intervention in 2011 that fueled the subsequent civil war, with the French government and Obama administration having played an active role in the capture and murder of Gaddafi. Instead of becoming a business haven for the West in the aftermath, Libya has since been torn apart by battling warlords and a clash between two governments, that of Tobruk in Cyrenaica (supported by Egypt, Russia, France and the Arab Emirates) and that of Tripoli, recognised by the "international community" (i.e. the rest of the West plus Turkey). The US, for its part, balances between the two. 

Derna had always been a rebel city, over which Gaddafi struggled to maintain control. After the revolution was derailed in 2011, it was the jihadis returning from Mosul and Syria who took control in a power vacuum. In 2015, the flag of the ISIS caliphate flew over Derna. After that, a fierce battle developed between ISIS and Al-Qaeda for control of the city. The battle only ended in 2019 with the capture of Derna by the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA), which wiped out the Islamists with the help of massive air strikes.

The United States, then led by Trump, turned a blind eye to the bombing campaign, targeting ISIS. It was conducted under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, who has dual Libyan and US citizenship, has lived near Langley for 20 years, and has long been on the payroll of the US services.

Derna has been devastated: the hard work of reconstruction was just started when it was interrupted. In the on-going civil war, the only infrastructure maintained by the bandit governments was the oil installations, from which they can extract wealth. Planning for intervention in the waterworks was not even remotely on their list of priorities.

Cyclone Image VIIRS Imagery from the NOAA 20 Satellite Wikimedia CommonsCyclone Daniel developed into a subtropical cyclone, whose effects were also felt in Greece and Turkey / Image: VIIRS Imagery from the NOAA 20 Satellite Wikimedia Commons

It is clear that the unspeakable destruction wrought by the flooding is not due to mere natural causes: it is the result of neglect and chaos, caused by the bandits who rule Libya, and the forces of capitalist imperialism that allowed them to assume power.

The cosmetic condolences of the West did not last half an hour. The European Union continued to close its doors to Libyan migrants, even to the refugees from the flooded areas (as was the case after the earthquake in Morocco). The death toll in Derna does not include the migrants present in the region, of whom it is estimated that there are at least 700,000 in the whole of Libya. These men and women are seen as worthless.

Outburst of anger

Grief lasted only one week before turning to anger. On Monday, the Derna masses took to the streets to demand accountability from the authorities. Hundreds gathered outside the city's main mosque, where they chanted slogans against the authorities in the east, particularly the Tobruk parliament and its president, Aguila Saleh.

“The people want the parliament to fall”; “Aguila (Saleh) is the enemy of God”, “Those who steal or betray must be hanged”, “Libya, neither east nor west, national unity”, the demonstrators chanted.

In the evening, groups of protesters went to the house of Mayor Abdulmonem al-Ghaithi and set it on fire, shouting: “the blood of the martyrs was not shed in vain”. They accuse al- Ghaithi of stealing 2 million EUR that were allocated in 2010 for the renovation of the two dams.

The slogans in favour of national unity represent a step in the right direction. The masses support the unity of the common people in the face of this tragedy, and do not understand the division of the country that has only served the interests of the powerful. In the most classic spirit of class solidarity, many young people from all over Libya travelled to Derna, defying the armed militias, to help search-and-rescue operations for the missing.

This is precisely the sort of unity that is needed in Libya. Not unity between the oppressed and the oppressors; nor between those who work and the warlords who exploit the people and reap huge fortunes from 'hope trips' across the Mediterranean.

Libyan workers and youth have been through 12 years of unbearable ordeal, of which the Derna flood is but the umpteenth tragedy. But Libya's history is rich in revolutionary traditions of struggle, particularly against colonialism and its puppets within the country. Today, they must rediscover these traditions in order to fight against the imperialists and their puppets, who are leading the country and the whole continent to disaster.

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