By Lisa Vives
As stricken Libyans searched for signs of life amid the wreckage left by two enormous dams that burst in a hurricane-strength storm, anger was growing over warnings that were ignored but could have possibly prevented the worst disaster in the country’s modern history.
“A lot of people are responsible for this. The dam wasn’t fixed, so now it’s a disaster,” said Alwad Alshawly, an English teacher who had spent three days burying bodies as a rescue volunteer, according to Reuters.
Searchers digging through mud and hollowed-out buildings say 10,000 people are missing and feared dead in flooding that has already taken the lives of over 11,000 men, women and children.
The dams collapsed in exceptionally heavy rains from Mediterranean storm Daniel, sending a wall of water several feet high, gushing down a valley that cuts through the city of Derna.
The unusual flooding and Libya’s political chaos contributed to the enormous toll. The oil-rich state has been split since 2014 between rival governments in the east and west backed by various militia forces and international patrons.
When hydrologist Abdul Wanis Ashour began researching the system of dams protecting the eastern Libya port town of Derna, the peril facing residents was already no secret, he said.
Ashour warned that if the dams were not urgently maintained, the city faced a potential catastrophe.
“There were warnings before that,” he said. “The Libyan government knew what was going on in the Derna River Valley. The two dams were built around half a century ago and the danger of the situation was known for a very long time.”
Derna is prone to flooding, and its dam reservoirs have caused at least five deadly floods since 1942, the latest of which was in 2011, according to a research paper published by Libya’s Sebha University last year.
All dams are potentially dangerous, according to the U.S. Association of State Dam Safety Officials —if they are old and have not been properly maintained or have fallen into disrepair.
At last count, according to a report by the Associated Press, there are 91,757 dams in the U.S. and more than 2,200 are in poor condition, likely endangering lives if they were to fail.
Climate change has subjected some dams to greater strain from intense rainstorms. Homes, businesses and highways have cropped up below dams that were originally built in remote locations.
“All of the sudden, you’ve got older dams with a lower design criteria that now can potentially cause loss of life if they fail,” said Del Shannon, an engineer who is president of the U.S. Society on Dams.
“The number of deficient, high-hazard dams is increasing,” he said, adding that without investment in upgrades that number will continue to rise.
The actual number of high-hazard dams is likely even higher than the AP’s tally, because some states don’t track such data and many federal agencies refuse to release that information.
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed last year by President Joe Biden will pump about $3 billion into dam-related projects, including hundreds of millions for state dam safety programs and repairs.
Yet it’s still just a fraction of the nearly $76 billion needed to fix the tens of thousands of dams owned by individuals, companies, community associations, state and local governments, and other entities besides the federal government, according to a report by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
New York has about twice the number of high-hazard dams as it did in 2018, when the AP previously collected data for analysis.
Meanwhile, prosecutor general Al-Seddik Al-Sour has announced an investigation into the circumstances leading to the flash flood that swept through the city last Sunday.
Like much of Libya’s crumbling infrastructure, the two dams that had been built to hold back water from Derna fell into disrepair over years of neglect, conflict and division.
An Italian engineering firm hired to assess the damage confirmed finding cracks and recommended the construction of a third dam to protect the city, said Al-Sour.