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Horrific dam collapses epitomize Libya's failures. Why were so many warnings ignored?

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIRUT — Amid the search for thousands of people washed away when two storm-swollen dams burst, amid the burials and bewilderment in the Libyan city of Derna, sorrow has given way to rage.

More than a week after Storm Daniel punched through the dams made of compacted clay, with the death toll at anywhere from 4,000 to over 11,000, recriminations — and demands for punishment — are mounting.

Libyans question why the dams failed — why they weren't repaired or replaced despite stark predictions of disaster — and why residents got confusing and contradictory instructions before floodwaters washed away buildings, bridges, neighborhoods.

For many in the troubled North African nation of some 7 million, the dams' disintegration has become a symbol of both the dysfunction and venality of Libya's political class.

"People know this is a crime, not just a natural disaster. And they want someone to be held accountable," said Awad Alshalwy, an English teacher in Derna working as a volunteer with rescue crews. Infrastructure in Derna had long been neglected, he said, with any money earmarked for upgrades stolen by politicians.

"There were problems with everything. Compared to Benghazi or Tripoli, it was as if Derna was in another country."


On Monday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the city's Al-Sahaba mosque for the first public demonstration since the devastating flood, shouting slogans excoriating top officials.

A group of Derna residents released a statement to Libyan and international authorities demanding investigations be sped up. And they want prosecutions of "everyone who had a hand in the negligence or thefts ... without covering up any criminal, whoever they may be, as there is no one more important than the people we lost."

The dams underscored successive governments' blasé attitude toward infrastructure.

The dams were constructed in the 1970s by a Yugoslav company in the Wadi Derna basin. The larger dam, Boumansour, which is nearly nine miles from the city of Derna, stood about 250 feet tall and could hold nearly 800 million cubic feet of water. The other, Bilad, had a capacity of about 53 million cubic feet; less than a mile from Derna, it was meant to protect the city from flooding.


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