Libyan prosecutor promises criminal trial for any neglect of collapsed dams

Libyan authorities have opened an investigation into the collapse of two dams that caused a devastating flood in the coastal city of Derna, as rescue teams searched for bodies on Saturday, nearly a week after the deluge killed more than 11,000 people.

2 dams overwhelmed in storm blamed for deluge that killed over 11,000 people

Flooding damage in Derna, Libya.
Drone footage released on Saturday shows the wide-scale destruction and water-flooded land in the ravaged Libyan city of Derna, in the aftermath of the deadliest storm to hit the country in decades. (Reuters)

Libyan authorities have opened an investigation into the collapse of two dams that caused a devastating flood in a coastal city as rescue teams searched for bodies on Saturday, nearly a week after the deluge killed more than 11,000 people.

It's unclear how such an investigation can be carried out in the North African country, which plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. For most of the past decade, Libya has been split between rival administrations — one in the east, the other in the west — each backed by powerful militias and international patrons.

One result has been the neglect of crucial infrastructure, even as climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent and severe.

Heavy rains caused by Mediterranean storm Daniel resulted in deadly flooding across eastern Libya last weekend. The floods overwhelmed two dams, sending a wall of water several metres high through the centre of Derna, destroying entire neighbourhoods and sweeping people out to sea.

The torrent of water unleashed Sunday night hurtled down a seasonal riverbed that bisects Derna, washing multi-storey buildings into the sea.

Thousands missing

More than 10,000 people are missing, according to the Libyan Red Crescent. Six days on, searchers are still digging through mud and hollowed-out buildings, looking for bodies and possible survivors. The Red Crescent has confirmed 11,300 deaths so far.

Claire Nicolet, who heads the emergencies department of the Doctors Without Borders aid group, said rescuers found "a lot of bodies" on Friday and were still searching. "It was a big number ... the sea is still ejecting lots of dead bodies unfortunately," she told The Associated Press.

A man passes a dog through the window of a flood-destroyed home in Libya.
A man passes a puppy through the window of a destroyed house in Wadi-al-Ahmar, Libya, on Saturday. (Abdelaziz Boumzar/Reuters)

Nicolet said massive aid efforts were still needed, including urgent psychological support for those who lost their families.

She said the burial of bodies is still a significant challenge, despite some progress in co-ordinating search-and-rescue efforts and the distribution of aid.

Authorities and aid groups have voiced concerns about the spread of waterborne diseases and shifting of explosive ordnance from Libya's recent conflicts.

Contaminated water

Haider al-Saeih, head of Libya's centre for combating diseases, said in televised comments on Saturday that at least 150 people had suffered from diarrhea after drinking contaminated water in Derna. He urged residents to drink only bottled water, which is being shipped in as part of relief efforts.

Libyan Attorney General Al-Siddiq Al-Sour said prosecutors would investigate the collapse of the two dams, which were built in the 1970s, as well as the allocation of maintenance funds. He said prosecutors would investigate local authorities in the city, as well as previous governments.

A boy stands next to debris from flooding.
A boy stands next to rubble in the Libyan town of Susa on Friday, nearly a week after heavy rains hit northeastern Libya. (Mohamed Shalash/AFP/Getty Images)

"I reassure citizens that whoever made mistakes or negligence, prosecutors will certainly take firm measures, file a criminal case against him and send him to trial," he told a news conference in Derna late Friday. He said the probe will include investigators from different parts of the country.

Such an inquiry would face major obstacles given Libya's lingering political divide, even as the devastation brought a rare moment of unity, with Libyans on both sides rushing aid to Derna.

Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for defence and security studies, said that an investigation could pose "a unique challenge" for judicial authorities, since it could lead to the highest ranks of leadership in eastern and western Libya.

Later on Saturday, a local television station reported that Derna's mayor, Abdel-Moneim al-Gaithi, was suspended pending an investigation into the disaster, according to a government decree dated Sept. 14. Ahmed Amdour was appointed acting mayor for the flood-stricken city, the station said.

WATCH | Help arrives in flood-stricken Derna from within and outside Libya: 

Help arrives in flood-stricken Derna from within and outside Libya

6 days ago
Duration 2:09
Help arrives to search for survivors, bodies and bury the dead in flood-stricken Derna from inside and outside of Libya. The tragedy has managed to unite a country divided by warlords and factions.

Local officials in the city had warned the public about the coming storm, and last Saturday it ordered residents to evacuate coastal areas in Derna, fearing a surge from the sea. But there was no warning about the dams, which collapsed early Monday as most residents were asleep in their homes.

A report by a state-run audit agency in 2021 said the two dams had not been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million US for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.

Maintenance work over a decade ago

A Turkish firm was contracted in 2007 to carry out maintenance on the two dams and build another dam in between. The firm, Arsel Construction Company Limited, said on its website that it completed its work in November 2012. It didn't respond to an email seeking further comment.

Meanwhile, local and international rescue teams were working around the clock, searching for bodies and potential survivors in the city of 90,000 people.

Ayoub said his father and nephew died in Derna on Monday, a day after the family had fled flooding in the nearby town of Bayda. He said his mother and sister raced upstairs to the roof but the others didn't make it.

"I found the kid in the water next to his grandfather," said Ayoub, who gave only his first name. "I am wandering around and I still don't believe what happened."

Flood damage to multi-storey buildings in Derna, Libya.
People search for flood victims in Derna, Libya, on Friday. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/The Associated Press)

Al-Sour, the top prosecutor, called on residents who have missing relatives to report to a forensic committee that works on documenting and identifying retrieved bodies.

Libyan authorities have restricted access to the flooded city to make it easier for searchers to dig through the mud and hollowed-out buildings for the more than 10,000 people still missing. Many bodies were believed to have been buried under rubble or swept out into the Mediterranean Sea, they said.

The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the towns of Bayda, Susa, Marj and Shahatt. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in the region and took shelter in schools and other government buildings.

Dozens of foreigners were among those killed, including people who had fled war and unrest elsewhere in the region. Others had come to Libya to work or were travelling through in hopes of migrating to Europe.

WATCH | The rush to help 30,000 people displaced by Libyan flood: 

The rush to help 30,000 people displaced by Libyan flood

7 days ago
Duration 2:23
Rescue crews are racing to find and save any survivors in Derna after roughly a quarter of the Libyan city was washed away by floodwaters. The city's mayor says the death toll could eventually reach 20,000.

With files from Reuters