A year before the disastrous flood that devastated Derna, Libya, this month, a Libyan researcher warned that the coastal city faced a potential catastrophe if two neglected dams above it were not urgently maintained.
That warning, in a paper published by Abdelwanees Abdul-Aziz Ramadan Ashoor, a professor of civil engineering at Omar Al-Mukhtar University, in Al-Bayda, was tragically borne out on the night of September 10.
As heavy rains from Hurricane Daniel pounded the region, the dams burst, and thousands of the residents of Derna were surprised by powerful floodwaters that crashed through their city, destroying homes and sweeping entire neighbourhoods out to sea. More than 4,000 people are known to have died and more than 8,000 others are still missing, the United Nations has reported.
Ashoor’s paper suggests that research could have saved these people if the local authorities had responded to its recommendations and undertaken regular maintenance of the dams.
“We have always called for not neglecting scientific research, and for supporting it. … Decision-makers must refer to institutions of higher education.”General Syndicate of University Faculty Members in Libya
The study, titled “Estimation of the Surface Runoff Depth of Wadi Derna Basin by Integrating the Geographic Information Systems and Soil Conservation Service (SCS-CN) Model”, was published in the Sebha University Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences in November 2022.
According to the General Syndicate of University Faculty Members in Libya, Ashoor’s study discussed in detail the dangers facing the city.
In a statement issued on September 12, the syndicate said: “We have always called for not neglecting scientific research, and for supporting it, and for the relationship between the researcher, the thinker, and the decision-maker to be complementary and not antagonistic. Decision-makers must refer to institutions of higher education.”
A Known Danger
In his paper, Ashoor warned that recurring floods in the Derna River Valley had become a “continuous threat to the residents of the valley and the city of Derna.” He noted that five floods had occurred since 1942 and called for taking immediate steps to ensure regular maintenance of dams.
He attributed the problems threatening the Wadi Derna Basin to several causes, including damage to the dams’ hydraulic facilities in a 1986 flood, and “poor management of water resources due to the lack of data and stations to measure surface runoff.”
This lack of data also contributes to the wasting of rainwater that falls on the basin annually, he added.
“The current situation in the Wadi Derna Basin requires officials to take immediate measures by conducting periodic maintenance of the existing dams,” Ashoor’s article warned. “If a massive flood occurs, the result will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city.”
Anger Against Authorities
Over the past few days, massive demonstrations have taken place in Derna to protest authorities’ failure to respond to scientific warnings. A crowd burned down the mayor’s house on Monday night.
The Libyan Public Prosecutor has ordered the opening of an official investigation into the collapse of the two dams, and the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, one of two rival administrations in the divided country, has indicated that “there are suspicions of corruption in the process of maintaining the two dams.”
Protesters have also taken aim at the administration in the east. In a demonstration outside Derna’s landmark Sahaba mosque, protesters criticised Aguila Saleh, head of the parliament in the east, and called for reuniting the nation. “Aguila, we don’t want you. All Libyans are brothers,” they chanted, according to news reports.
Despite its oil wealth, Libya has been living in a sharp division since the overthrow of the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The ensuing power struggle led to years of civil fighting before the conflicting parties reached a truce in 2020 that was supposed to lead to national presidential and parliamentary elections.
Instead, a stalemate has endured. The Government of National Unity, initially created as an interim government, remains in control in the west of the country, while the eastern regions are under the authority of a body designated the Libyan House of Representatives.
The two sides have been unable to agree on a new constitution or rules for holding the elections, despite United Nations efforts to facilitate the negotiations. Still, many Libyans remain hopeful that the process will succeed and lead to general elections that might end the chaos through a unified government.
The 2 Failed Dams
The Wadi Derna is a dry riverbed most of the year, but it has historically flooded during extreme rainfall events. The two dams, built in the 1970s, were meant to protect the city against flash floods.
Working on his research paper, Ashoor noticed that many residences had been built along the valley’s course, which led him to demand “that citizens be made aware of the danger of floods, and that all necessary measures and procedures be taken for their safety.”
He also warned of “the annual increase in the amount of rainwater, which exceeds the carrying capacity of the dams.”
“The current situation in the Wadi Derna Basin requires officials to take immediate measures by conducting periodic maintenance of the existing dams. If a massive flood occurs, the result will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city.”Abdelwanees Ashoor, in a study published in the Sebha University Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences last year.
The two dams were designed to hold a total of 24 million cubic metres of water. The upper Abu Mansour Dam, 14 kilometres above the city, had a storage capacity of 22.5 million cubic metres, while the lower Al Belad Dam, 1.5 kilometres from the city, had a storage capacity of 1.5 million cubic metres.
However, the heavy rainfall caused by Hurricane Daniel may have amounted to three times the dams’ capacity.
Marginalisation of Scientific Research
Mahmoud Hammad, a Libyan doctoral researcher in engineering at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, criticises the Libyan authorities’ inattention to the outputs of research.
“Scientific research has always been neglected in Libya and not taken into account. Today we see the consequences of what politicians did not realise,” he told Al-Fanar Media.
Hammad called on political leaders to listen to the voices of the thousands of researchers, who conduct research “to serve the nation” he said, and “not to obtain academic promotions.”
He urged the country’s authorities to form a council of researchers to study urgent problems and agree on frameworks for cooperation for the sake of the Libyan people. He stressed that scientific studies are useless unless they are implemented on the ground.
Another scientist, at the University of Tripoli, complained that government agencies do not seek the help of specialists when undertaking projects related to their fields of study. The researcher, who asked to stay anonymous, said that the Water Resources Authority had adopted new dam projects “without sufficient studies.”
“All countries of the world consult geophysicists in projects related to construction and soil,” he said. “In Libya, nobody contacted us in such strategic projects as building dams.”
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