| 14 June 2024, Friday |

In corrupt Libya, longtime warnings of the collapse of the Derna dams went unheeded

The dams suffered major damage in a strong storm that hit the region in 1986, and more than a decade later a study commissioned by the Libyan government revealed cracks and fissures in their structures, Libya’s general prosecutor, al-Sediq al-Sour, said late Friday.

At a news conference in the stricken city, al-Sour said prosecutors would investigate the collapse of the two dams, as well as the allocation of maintenance funds.

“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,” al-Sour said.

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. No work was done in the area, and the audit agency blamed the Ministry of Works and Natural Resources for failing to cancel the contract and give it to a company that would do the work.

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 Ltd., says on its website that it completed its work in November 2012.

Arsel was one of dozens of Turkish companies that had projects worth more than $15 billion in Libya before the 2011 uprising. Many of these companies fled the Libya chaos before returning in the past couple of years, especially when the Turkish government stepped in to help the Tripoli-based government fend off an attack by Hifter’s forces in 2019.

Arsel didn’t respond to an email seeking further comment on the two dams. No third dam appeared to have ever been built, recent satellite photos show.

Ahead of Mediterranean storm Daniel, authorities also gave contradicting messages. They imposed a curfew in Derna and other areas in the east. The municipality of Derna published statements on its website urging residents to evacuate the coastal areas for fear of a surge from the sea.

However, many residents said they received text messages on their phones urging them not to leave their homes.

The floods flattened Derna and officials have estimate that as much as a quarter of the city has been erased. Such devastation reflected the storm’s intensity, but also Libya’s vulnerability. The country’s infrastructure has suffered widespread neglect despite Libya’s oil wealth.

Al-Sour, the chief prosecutor, said prosecutors would probe local authorities in Derna as well as previous governments. He appointed investigators from different parts of the country to carry out the investigation.

East Libya’s government suspended Derna’s mayor, Abdel-Moneim al-Gaithi, pending an investigation into the disaster. The mayor didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Since 2014, eastern Libya has been under the control of Hifter and his forces. The rival government based in the capital, Tripoli, controls most national funds and oversees infrastructure projects. Neither tolerates dissent.

Activists are calling for an international probe, fearing that a local investigation would be fruitless in a country largely ruled by armed groups and militias. The “predatory” behavior of these groups and militias has resulted in “the misappropriation of Libyan State funds and the deterioration of institutions and infrastructure,” according to a report by the U.N. panel of experts.

Libya has suffered from weak public institutions, internal conflict and deep instability, which allowed corruption to become rife with few to no checks on public sector abuse, according to Transparency International.

An online petition signed in recent days by hundreds of people, including Libyan rights groups and NGOs, said an independent international committee is needed to “uncover the causes of this catastrophe” and hold those responsible accountable.

Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, said an investigation into the disaster would face towering challenges since it could reach top officials in west and east Libya.

Such an inquiry “might potentially reach into the highest ranks of responsibility,” he said. “This presents a unique challenge.”