A man sits by the graves of the flash flood victims in Derna. Image Credit: AP

DERNA, Libya: 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, 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 Muammar Gaddafi 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.

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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 caused deadly flooding across eastern Libya last weekend. The floods overwhelmed two dams, sending a wall of water several meters high through the centre of Derna, destroying entire neighbourhoods and sweeping people out to sea.

Libya’s General Prosecutor, Al Sediq Al Sour, said that 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.

“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. 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.

'Unique challenge'

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” to 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, Abdul Moneim Al Gaithi, was suspended pending an investigation into the disaster, according to a government decree dated September 14.

Ahmed Amdour was appointed acting mayor for the flood-stricken city, the station said.

Since 2014, eastern Libya has been under the control of Libyan National Army chief General Khalifa Haftar. A rival government, based in the capital, Tripoli, controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. Neither tolerates dissent.

During a visit to Derna on Friday, Haftar promised promotions to all military personnel involved in the relief efforts.

Local officials in the city had warned the public about the coming storm and last Saturday 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 hadn’t been maintained despite the allocation of more than $2 million for that purpose in 2012 and 2013.

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