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Was Libya's Deadly Flooding Caused By Climate Change?
And what lessons can we learn from it?
2023 has been the year of insane weather. The oceans have boiled, heatwaves spread from pole to pole, wildfires have raged like never before, and biblically powerful storms have battered much of humanity. In fact, over the past months, ten countries have experienced intense floods, including Hong Kong, much of the Mediterranean, and Libya. However, possibly, the most brutal and tragic of this year’s weather events was the recent flooding in Libya. This war-torn country experienced some of its worst flooding ever, leaving the city of Derna decimated. But what caused this disaster? Was it a freak event? Or, is the finger pointed squarely at man-made climate change?
So, what actually happened in Libya? And why was it so deadly? Well, it was a combination of extreme weather, ageing infrastructure and inadequate warnings. It all started when an entire year’s worth of rain fell in only 24 hours; this alone was enough to cause a massive flood event that would threaten lives. However, the city of Derna, which was slap bang in the middle of this downpour, has a system of dams surrounding it. The Libya Government had known for well over a decade that these dams were in dire need of repair and could collapse completely unprovoked. As such, this extreme rain posed a significant risk to the city of Derna, and as predicted by studies going back to the late 2000s, the damns burst and flooded the city with a truly biblical amount of water.
This knowledge about the dam, combined with accurate forecasting and real-time data, meant the government had the time and data available to have warned these citizens, evacuated them or placed a curfew on them to stay in safe areas. However, it seems that due to ineptitude, corruption and mismanagement, very few warnings were issued, and those given out were ineffective. As such, the city of Derna mostly carried on as usual during the torrential rain. Over 11,000 citizens of Derna are now dead, and relief efforts are now running out of body bags. Derna only had a population of around 90,000, so while 11,000 might seem like a low death rate for a natural disaster, it is one of the most deadly to happen in a long, long time.
But was this a one-time black swan event, or is this a hint of what’s to come as climate change ravages the planet?
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Let’s start with the weather element. When climate scientists tie a weather event to climate change, they look at how more likely that event would be with the level of climate change at the time compared to without. This calculation isn’t easy and requires going through a lot of data, so we don’t yet have a figure for this event, as there hasn’t been enough time to do this calculation. However, Günter Blöschl, a hydrologist at the Vienna University of Technology who is currently undertaking this calculation, has said when asked about the link between Libya’s flooding and climate change, “The answer to that is, at this stage, without detailed analysis, yes. There is quite a clear causal link.”
That isn’t all too surprising; these flooding events happen when sea surface temperatures are higher, as this pushes more water into the atmosphere. This faster water cycle leads to floods, storms, hurricanes and cyclones. At the time of the flooding, the Mediterranean was quite hot, and its high temperature has already been linked to man-made climate change. To give a sense of how strongly events like this can be linked to climate change, flooding events in 2022 have been found to be 80 to 100 times more likely and 20% more severe, thanks to climate change.
Now, let’s look at the human part. Libya has been a war-torn and tumultuous country for a while now, so it isn’t surprising that it couldn’t mitigate the damage from this flood. If the government had been well-funded, developed and uncorrupted, thousands more people would possibly still be alive. So, can the blame for this disaster be put firmly on Libya’s government, not climate change?
Yes and no.
Questions must be raised about why Libya did so little to maintain the crumbling dams and warn or prepare the people of Derna for the flood. In that way, the blame can be put on the government.
However, numerous studies have shown that developed countries are overwhelmingly causing climate change, and developing countries will overwhelmingly carry the burden of it. This is because developing countries tend to be in locations with higher risks of extreme weather, whilst the populations tend to rely on local environments for survival.
So, is it fair for us in the wealthy and relatively unimpaired West to expect poorer countries like Libya to spend money on increasing their climate resilience whilst having a direct hand in causing such extreme conditions for them? I don’t think so, and as such, climate change, and in turn, we, are to blame.
So, what can we learn from this?
This catastrophic flood demonstrates to governments worldwide, rich and poor, that we need to prepare for the reality of climate change. It also highlights that those most at risk from climate change are those least responsible for the climate disaster. As such, it is time to look at the infrastructure around us, and stress test it far past current weather extremes. We need a significant amount of redundancy in the systems that keep us alive so that when massive events happen like this, tragedies don’t follow.
It’s also time for the developed world to have a look at itself. The dam’s lack of maintenance was not their fault. Developed countries didn’t set up this disaster, but they were the ones who pulled the piece from the bottom of the Jenga tower. There have to be questions about climate reparations or climate support for those most affected. This isn’t just driven by morals, as all developed nations, in some way, shape or form, rely on developing nations.
If humanity wants to thrive under climate change, it must do so together. But, it will take a monumental shift in approach for developed nations to think like this. Their governments are still avoiding the blame and firmly refusing to take responsibility for cleaning up their horrific climate mess. So, sadly, more disasters like Libya will happen for years to come. Sorry, I wish there was a silver lining here, but I can’t find one.
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