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Libyan authorities say floods may have killed 20,000 people

Survivors look at the extent of devastation in Derna. Around 20,000 people have reportedly died in the flash floods. (Photo by AFP)

Libyan authorities have demanded an investigation to see if the catastrophe that recently unfolded amid floods in the country killing thousands was caused by a human blunder.

Libyan officials on Thursday sought to dig deep into the reasons that led to the huge devastation, trying to see if the disaster could have been avoided.

Mohamed al-Menfi, president of the Libyan Presidential Council, said on X that the council had asked the attorney general to investigate the disaster.

"Those whose actions or failure to act were responsible for the failure of the dam should be held accountable, along with anyone who held up aid," he said.

A torrent unleashed by a powerful Mediterranean storm Daniel burst dams on Sunday night in the port city of Derna, sending waves as high as 20 feet, washing multi-story buildings with sleeping residents inside.

Torrential rainfall from Mediterranean storm Daniel caused two dams to collapse, sending waves more than 20 feet high through the Libyan port city of Derna, killing thousands. Photo by AFP)

Up to 20,000 people are feared dead. The figures have been confirmed by the Mayor of Derna, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi who said deaths in the city could have reached 18,000-20,000, based on the extent of the damage.

Al-Ghaithi told Reuters he was afraid the city would now be infected with an epidemic, "due to the large number of bodies under the rubble and in the water".

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the huge loss of life could have been avoided if Libya had a functioning weather agency in place.

"If there would have been a normally operating meteorological service, they could have issued warnings," WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalashe said in Geneva.

Other commentators drew attention to warnings given in advance, including an academic paper last year by a hydrologist outlining the city's vulnerability to floods and the urgent need to maintain the dams that protected it.

"The emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out evacuation of the people. And we could have avoided most of the human casualties," Taalashe added.

The agency said that it had issued warnings 72 hours before the dams collapsed, including contacting the Libyan authorities and making statements to the media.

A day before the storm hit Libya, the city mayor had addressed a press conference saying that some areas surrounding the dam should be evacuated. But an emergency committee formed by the eastern government’s Interior Ministry ordered curfews instead.

A spokesperson at the mayor's office said that the city’s dam had not been maintained since 2008 due to Libya’s fractious politics.

While the investigations start, the survivors will have to battle the aftermath of the catastrophe.

Ghaithi said he was afraid the city would now be infected with an epidemic, "due to the large number of bodies under the rubble and in the water".

A destroyed vehicle in a devastated neighborhood in the eastern city of Derna. (Photo by AFP)

According to the International Organization for Migration, around 30,000 people from Derna are displaced.

A government official estimated Wednesday that 25% of the city was completely destroyed or washed away.

Experts say the enormous task of providing immediate aid and then rebuilding Derna is complicated because of a decade of civil war, which has left two rival governments ruling eastern and western Libya.

Derna is controlled by the Libyan National Army, run by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter and based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The rest of the country is run by the Government of National Unity based in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.

The North African country with a population of about 7 million people is divided with no government holding nationwide reach since a NATO-backed uprising toppled the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi’s government in 2011.

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