People 'have lost everything' after the 'unimaginable ordeal' of Libya floods

A top UN official in Libya has described how thousands of people in the North African country have ‘lost everything’ after floods gutted Derna.

Torrential rain from Storm Daniel charged through the Mediterranean Sea earlier this month, pounding Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria.

Next was Derna, a city of about 100,000 on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

There was a lot of rain. Libya, with its dry climate, tends to just see about 1.5mm of rain in a typical September – the storm bucketed 414mm of rain.

Heavy rains – after soaking nearby Shahhat, Al-Bayda, Marj and other coastal towns – eventually broke through the two fragile dams protecting Derna.

The water sent death and destruction through the streets of Derna as the lives of thousands were washed out into the Mediterranean Sea, Rana Ksaifi, UNHCR Libya’s assistant chief of mission, tells

‘What I saw in Derna was like nothing I had seen in my 19 years working as a humanitarian, and I have worked in many countries that have been ravaged by conflict and destruction,’ she says.

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‘I saw roads that were split in half, massive rocks tumbled from the neighbouring mountains, homes completely destroyed, sunk, submerged under water.’

With entire neighbourhoods razed, the death toll has risen to nearly 4,000, the UN says, but the figure is likely far higher. Over 9,000 remain missing.

For Ksaifi, the mood on the ground has been one of ‘destruction and devastation’.

‘The people we are meeting and assisting lost everything: their homes, their livelihoods, their communities, and not least, their loved ones. They are coping with so much loss and pain,’ she says.

‘The shock is still visible on their faces as the unimaginable ordeal they went through has taken a severe toll on their mental health.’

While the army has urged people to evacuate Derna, some have chosen to stay and search for their missing family members.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN’s immigration agency, says at least 43,000 people have been displaced because of the storm.

‘The lack of water supply is reportedly driving many displaced out of Derna to eastern and western municipalities,’ the IOM said.

Those who have left their homes behind are having to ‘survive in new and unfamiliar environments with very little’, Ksaifi adds.

‘At the moment, it feels like people are trying to make sense of the aftermath and focus on reuniting with their families, find their missing members or bury their dead.

‘It will be a while until some sense of normality returns to their daily lives.’

The catastrophe has prompted a wave of international support, with the UK, US, China and several European and Middle Eastern countries offering to send aid.

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UK for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency’s British charity partner, launched an appeal for donations earlier this month.

Emma Cherniavsky, chief executive of UK for UNHCR, said: ‘Even as we wait for the full scale of the destruction to become clear, we can see that these floods have caused unbelievable devastation and loss.’

‘That’s why we’ve launched our appeal, so that UNHCR can help ensure that people get the vital aid that they desperately need,’ she added.

Food, drink, hygiene kits and materials for makeshift shelters such as tarpaulins, blankets and solar lamps remain top of the list.

Resources for medical, mental health and psychosocial support are needed too. Think therapy appointments, ensuring children separated from families are housed with caregivers or replacing lost identity cards.

About 10,000 patients at the Derna field hospital received essential medicine last weekend, Ksaifi says. Rub halls were pitched on top of two generators to help provide treatments.

UN officials warn that a ‘second devastating crisis’ is hurtling towards Libya if not enough is done to help those affected by the floods – disease.

UN officials warn that a ‘second devastating crisis’ is hurtling towards Libya if not enough is done to help those affected by the floods – disease.

Libya’s disease control centre has said crews are combing through bodies of water for ‘disease-carrying insects’ as worries grow over contaminated water.

Officials are advising people to drink bottled water rather than regular drinking water.

But receiving relief such as clean water is easier than it sounds. In the wake of the Arab Spring revolution that ousted the country’s longtime dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been split between two rival rulers.

To the west is the Government of National Unity based in Tripoli and the military-dominated east which includes the flooded area.

Getting aid to affected areas is made even trickier by how 70% of Derna infrastructure and 50% of roads have been damaged, transport officials have said according to the Libyan news agency LANA.

Libya, Ksaifi says, wasn’t exactly prepared for Storm Daniel.

Many Libyans live in coastal areas at risk of flooding as sea levels rise, with towns often built along bone-dry riverbeds that flood easily as the parched earth struggles to soak the rainfall.

But a decade of political dysfunction has left the country’s infrastructure crumbling, with officials in the east doing little to maintain the ageing dams on Derna’s outskirts.

A lack of a united government made getting the word out to civilians about the danger of the flood as well as organising relief efforts harder.

If the country’s national weather service was able to issue a warning, emergency officials could have carried out a mass evacuation and saved countless lives, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.

‘A combination of conflict and lack of social protection infrastructure place a country at heightened vulnerability in the face of an extreme weather event,’ Ksaifi says.

Adding to the already long list of woes, the floods may only get worse from here on out.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that as much as climate change may mean fewer Mediterranean storms in the future, they will only get more and more powerful.

‘Without reducing the risk of disasters and managing the impacts of climate change, extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and heatwaves, will continue to drive displacement, with devastating impact on the world’s most vulnerable communities, including refugees, displaced people and their host communities,’ Ksaifi warns.

As the once waterlogged streets in Libya begin to dry, Ksaifi says that the job of rebuilding lives cannot fall on to the people alone.

‘Thousands of individuals have lost everything, not least their loved ones. Many had already been displaced before and need all the support they can get to overcome this tragedy,’ she adds.

#Now is not the time to turn our backs on the situation in Libya.’

To donate to UK for UNHCR’s emergency Libya floods appeal visit

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