Thousands of people who have died in Libya’s devastating floods could have been saved had early warning and emergency management systems functioned properly, the United Nations said today.
Petteri Taalas, head of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that with better coordination, authorities ‘could have avoided most of the human casualties’.
At least 5,100 people are known to have died after floods swept through the city of Derna on Sunday, according to latest figures from Libyan officials. Thousands are still believed to be missing.
Mr Taalas told reporters that if authorities had a properly functioning meteorological service then they ‘could have issued the warnings and the emergency management forces would have been able to carry out the evacuation of the people’.
He added that complications arose from institutions ‘not functioning normally’ and the WMO had been in contact with authorities to help reform their meteorological system – but that these efforts had been hampered by security threats.
On Sunday night, Derna residents said they heard explosions as two dams outside the city collapsed, causing waters to rush down the valley that cuts through the city.
Rescue operations have been complicated by political fractures in Libya that has been without a strong central government since a NATO-backed uprising toppled long-standing leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The internationally-recognised Government of National Unity, based in Tripoli, does not exercise authority over eastern Libya, including Derna, which is controlled by a rival administration.
Derna, which was worst affected by flooding that followed Storm Daniel, has begun burying people in mass graves outside the city, as search teams scoured for survivors. Bodies are also being transferred to nearby towns and cities for burial.
More than 3,000 bodies were buried by Thursday morning, said eastern Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljaleel, while another 2,000 were still being processed.
Derna mayor Abdel Raham al-Ghaithi said the death toll could climb to 20,000, in comments given to the Saudi-owned Al Arabia television station.
An official with the UN’s World Health Organisation in Libya said the fatalities could reach 7,000, given the number of people who were still missing.
‘The numbers could surprise and shock all of us,’ said the official.
The floods have displaced at least 30,000 people in Derna, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM). Several thousands of others were forced to leave their homes in other eastern towns, IOM said.
The floods damaged or destroyed many access roads to Derna, complicating the arrival of international rescue teams and humanitarian assistance.