Libya’s death toll is climbing, with the Libyan Red Crescent aid group putting the carnage at 11,300 in the coastal city of Derna alone.
The coastal city was hard hit by Storm Daniel on September 10 and 11, which had been fuelled by a Mediterranean Sea warmed by climate change.
Rescue groups were scrambling to account for the 34,000 people still missing, said the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian organisation.
But there was scant hope that many would be found alive, the group continued.
Many bodies may be underneath crumpled buildings or simply swept out into the Mediterranean Sea, said authorities. Divers were searching the sea.
Corpses were being washed back to the shore. “In just two hours, one of my colleagues counted over 200 bodies on the beach near Derna,” said Bilal Sablouh, regional forensics manager for Africa with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Eastern Libya’s health minister, Othman Abduljaleel, said that unidentified bodies were being buried in mass graves outside Derna’s city boundaries or in nearby villages. The World Health Organisation urged the mass burials to stop for health reasons – they could be near drinking water – and because of the trauma of relatives.
Fears of disease were rising, though standing water was said to be more likely to be contaminated rather than bodies posing a health risk for those left alive, often homeless and without drinking water. This was according to Dr Margaret Harris, spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation in Geneva.
"Storm Daniel is yet another lethal reminder of the catastrophic impact that a changing climate can have on our world," warned the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk.
On September 10 and 11 the city had been hit hard by Storm Daniel, fuelled by a warm sea because of climate change. That night, torrential rain was exacerbated by two dams collapsing, releasing a wall of water, debris and mud several metres high into the sleeping city.
According to a report on regional media, there had been no maintenance on the Abu Mansour and Wadi Derna dams since 2011, when the country first descended into a civil war that is still continuing. This was despite the issuance of maintenance contracts worth the equivalent of millions of dollars; the contracts were never completed.
The eastern government’s Attorney General is now investigating. Subsidence and cracks had been found in the dams as long ago as the early 1990s, said Al-Wasat newspaper.
Libya has been ruled by two factions – one in the disaster-hit east and an internationally recognised one in the west based in Tripoli – since civil war began after Libya’s ruler Colonel Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
Adding to the horror, the flood waters may have moved live land-mines still buried from the civil war, said Erik Tollefsen, head of the weapon contamination unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In the first decade of the war, a total of 3,457 people in Libya were killed or wounded by mines or remnants of explosive weapons, reported Associated Press citing the international Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.
The catastrophe highlights the vulnerability of people affected by conflict who are also vulnerable to climate change.
Climate change has amplified extreme weather events, making them more frequent, prolonged and severe, thus exacerbating the plight of vulnerable populations, said the IRC.
“Even before the devastating flooding, Libya was already grappling with the consequences of prolonged conflict and crisis, leaving approximately 800,000 people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance,” said Elie Abouaoun, the IRC’s Libya country director.
“The overwhelming amount of rain that fell, combined with ineffective early warning systems and preparedness measures and critical infrastructure in bad repair, deepened this humanitarian crisis,” he said.