Libya: Over A Month and a Half After the “Strongest Storm in Africa’s History” and Growing Needs for Children
“Tomorrow, a new day will dawn, and it will be a beautiful and flourishing day for Derna.
Together, we will build Derna because we are brothers, one hand and one body.
Libya will become one, safe, by God’s will”.
Children from the “Tripoli Scout Commission” rose above the political and institutional divisions and sent a written message to the children of Derna, expressing their support and sharing the dream of rebuilding the city and achieving unity in Libya. The messages, accompanied by dolls, were part of a program by the Scout Commission, which included a group of specialists in psychosocial support programs for children, mothers, and families.
“The Most Violent Storm”
More than a month and a half has passed since eastern Libya was hit by severe floods on September 10th, caused by the Mediterranean cyclone named “Daniel”, which also affected several other cities, including Derna. After hitting Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria and resulting in 20 deaths, the cyclone caused the collapse of the two dams surrounding Derna, Sidi Bou Mansour Dam and Al-Bilad Dam, due to corruption, neglect, and failure to repair and fortify the dams despite demands dating back more than two decades. Conflicting information circulates regarding the number of victims, missing persons, and displaced individuals.
The latest official death toll recorded 4,278 casualties on September 25th, 2023 while the Libyan Red Crescent and Médecins Sans Frontières estimated in mid-September that more than 11,000 people had died. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported at the end of September that 8,500 people were missing, with a quarter of a million people affected, and more than 2,000 homes destroyed in Derna alone.
With a third of the city disappearing due to the floods while registering thousands of missing persons, many speculated that the actual number of victims could be no less than 20,000. The official response to the rescue and relief efforts and the determination of losses has been criticized for its inadequacy.
These criticisms came amid local accusations that the divided authorities were withholding and concealing information as well as restricting access to several areas out of fear of foreign prosecution for negligence, especially given the collapse of two dams, which significantly contributed to the increase in the number of victims, missing persons, displaced people, and homeless.
In this context, the spokesperson for the General Authority for the Search and Identification of Missing Persons, Abdulaziz Al-Jaafari, explained that the announced death tolls “only pertain to those whose identities have been identified.” He pointed out that “many were buried without being identified or having their DNA samples taken, especially during the first week, so these individuals need to be extracted for DNA sample collection and comparison with the families of the missing,” confirming that the Libyan authorities would later undertake this task.
These accusations come more than a decade after the outbreak of the war and conflicts in Libya, amidst divisions between a local government affiliated with the eastern Libyan parliament and not recognized by the international community and another based in the capital, Tripoli, having international recognition and support.
In terms of losses, the company “AON” estimated that the losses incurred by Libya due to the floods accompanying the storm “Daniel” amounted to around 4.3 billion dollars.
Regardless of the actual size of the losses, which are inevitably increasing, UN warnings have been issued regarding the fate of children, with UNICEF describing the disaster as the worst recorded storm in Africa’s history. The organization expressed its concern about the death of hundreds of children, especially since the number of victims and missing children has not been confirmed yet.
While Derna and neighboring cities are still trying to heal and recover gradually, it is essential to discuss the urgent needs of children there, especially in light of the fear of recurrent floods during the upcoming winter season due to the absence of dams.
Growing Needs for Children
Even before the disaster, Libya and its economy have been severely affected by over a decade of war. In a previous report on humanitarian interventions for children in Libya and their needs for 2023, UNICEF estimated that 200,000 children needed humanitarian assistance. The situation is particularly tragic for those forcibly displaced and families hosting adults, children with special needs, or those with chronic illnesses. The organization and its partners estimated their needs for basic humanitarian interventions in 2023 at $28.6 million, with urgent funding required in child protection, social protection, water, sanitation, public hygiene, and education.
“Often, the impact of floods is more devastating to children than the extreme weather events themselves. Children are among the most vulnerable groups, and they are at high risk of disease, lack of safe drinking water, malnutrition, disrupted learning, and violence,” described Michele Servadei, UNICEF’s representative in Libya, in the aftermath of the disaster. The figures mentioned above and others have increased after the floods that ravaged a quarter of the city, according to official local estimates. This means that the needs of children, residents, caregivers, and service providers have multiplied, and there is a greater need for intervention.
First: Displacement and Shelter
Libya has always witnessed a high rate of internal displacement due to prolonged war and conflicts. According to UNICEF, the floods have led to the displacement of over 16,000 children in eastern Libya, where children make up 40% of the population. The organization had previously stated, in a report preceding the disaster, that the number of children affected by the floods in the affected areas amounted to 353,000 out of 884,000 residents in those areas and 900,000 people, according to the UNOCHA.
Currently, tens of thousands of people are internally displaced and hosted by their relatives or sheltered in schools and public facilities. While UNICEF estimated that at least 30,000 people have been displaced, including those who are isolated and inaccessible, the International Organization for Migration, in its latest tally, estimated that the number of internally displaced people exceeded 43,000.
Second: Food and Health
With the occurrence of storms and floods, local food supply chains were disrupted, and families whose homes were submerged lost their food stocks. This comes as the country has witnessed political and economic instability over the past decade, exacerbating poverty, hunger, and food insecurity, not to mention the impact of the war in Ukraine on the global food sector, which has led to a shortage and increased prices in Libya. The World Food Programme described the situation, noting that it has affected “a country already facing a difficult political crisis that has affected its food security and social protection.”
Before the crisis, UNICEF had set among its goals for the 2023 program to provide support to over 70,000 young children and primary caregivers, as well as pregnant women in terms of food. The World Food Programme was providing support through food assistance and cash grants to over 52,000 individuals, including internally displaced persons, returnees, and migrants in urban areas.
After the disaster, the program began providing assistance to thousands of families and explained that it would strive to provide monthly food assistance to 100,000 people in the affected areas during the months of September, October, and November. Despite the support provided, residents of the affected areas, their children, and the internally displaced still need urgent and ongoing food intervention.
On the health front, Médecins Sans Frontières anticipated, given the scale of the disaster, that healthcare facilities may have been damaged and would need urgent repair and support to ensure access to medical care for those in this dire situation. Currently, the organization does not manage any projects in the affected Libyan areas, but it deployed an emergency team to Derna, sent essential medical supplies, and the first emergency team, in addition to coordinating with the Libyan Red Crescent to provide healthcare assistance.
UNICEF’s warnings of the danger of deadly diseases spreading are still relevant, as is its concern about waterborne diseases such as diarrhea and cholera, as well as drought and malnutrition, due to water supply issues and the extensive damage to health infrastructure, water sources, sewage networks, and the potential contamination of groundwater, along with the presence of a large number of bodies under the rubble, especially with Derna entering the winter season, which increases the risk of disease spreading. UNICEF has pointed out that in Derna alone, estimates indicate that 50% of water networks have been damaged.
Indeed, several cases of children with diarrhea have appeared in the affected areas. Diarrhea is considered one of the main causes of death for children under the age of five, and many of these deaths occur in South Asia and the sub-Saharan region of Africa.
In a data analysis conducted by Yale University based on data from the Dartmouth Flood Observatory in 43 low-income or middle-income countries, researchers found a link between severe floods or those lasting over two weeks and those following periods of drought, and an increased risk of diarrhea in younger children. This strongly applies to what Libya has experienced and continues to experience.
According to UNICEF estimates for 2023, more than 111,000 children needed to enroll in schools. With the significant damage to the educational infrastructure, children are facing even more barriers to their learning. According to the organization, 4 schools were destroyed in the affected areas, and 80 others were partially damaged out of a total of 117 schools that were affected, with some of them housing displaced families.
While the organization had set a goal for 2023 to engage approximately 93,000 children in receiving formal or informal educational services, including early learning, and about 96,000 children in obtaining individual educational materials, the recent disaster has increased the scale of needs and interventions required in this sector.
Fourth: Mental Health and Protection
The mental and social health of young children in the affected areas is closely tied to their physical, health, and social needs. After more than a month and a half since the disaster, young children in Libya’s devastated areas are still burdened with severe psychological stress, post-traumatic disorders, acute anxiety, fear, and depression. UNICEF documented this suffering through psychological distress, an inability to play and interact, sleep disturbances, and instances of involuntary urination, especially in shelter centers. Cases of suicide among young people have also been reported.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of young children now find themselves without families to shelter them, with the state assuming their care under a decree issued by the authorities. Despite the Ministry of Health in Libya announcing the formation of special committees for psychological support, local Libyan sources told the German News Agency that “the formation of the committees did not go much beyond that.”
While the World Health Organization spoke of “huge needs in mental health that will continue to emerge as soon as the initial shock of the destruction and loss experienced by the population begins to dissipate,” it is essential to emphasize the urgent need for psychosocial and social care in this field for the affected children and families.
This comes as Libya’s children originally struggle with a challenging socio-political psychological situation. UNICEF had included in its 2023 plan, before the floods, the goal of providing 172,204 children, adolescents, and caregivers with community mental health and psychosocial support.
On the protection level, thousands of children in Derna and the surrounding areas who have lost their parents or have become separated from their families are more vulnerable to various protection risks, including violence and exploitation.
The Curse of War and Climate
Mediterranean floods are familiar, and Libya has witnessed floods in the past. However, Hurricane Daniel caused catastrophic floods that Libya has rarely seen. According to most climate experts, the climate change crisis exacerbates the intensity of storms and hurricanes like Hurricane Daniel, combined with the recurring drought periods that have dried the land and made it difficult to absorb water during storms.
Several reports issued by organizations, institutions and websites concerned with studying the climate change crisis, which were reviewed by the Arab Network for Early Childhood – whose field of research is concerned with the impact of the climate change disaster on young children – intersected in explaining the extent of the floods in Libya in light of the climate crisis, and consequently its connection to the high number of victims. . Among these references is the magazine Nature, whose scientists linked climate deterioration to the results of the years of war in Libya and the successive governance crisis on the one hand, and the worsening disaster that the country witnessed on the other hand. In short, it is “the curse of war and climate,” as the Director General of the Geneva Water Center described it.
In an analysis conducted by the World Weather Attribution Group, a group of scientists supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, they found that climate change resulting from human activity made heavy rainfall in northeastern Libya 50 times more likely to occur than it would have in a world without human-induced climate change.
What is even more dangerous is that, according to scientists, even in a world warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius, the rainfall that fell on Libya was unusual, an event that could be expected once every 300 to 600 years in a world not experiencing human-induced climate change.
Furthermore, the company AON mentioned in its analytical report that the heavy floods that Libya witnessed during September are the second deadliest natural disasters during 2023, indicating that the confirmed losses globally due to natural disasters were the highest ever in the third quarter of the current year.
Urgent and Future Needs
Libya faces a long journey to recovery. Relief efforts are carried out by a civilian army and supported by civilian volunteers from all over the country in a harmony rarely seen over the past decade. It is also supported by countries that have sent various aid and support from local, regional, and international organizations.
Despite the efforts made, there are fundamental, urgent, and future needs that families and children in the affected areas in Libya require, the most important of which include: