Libya is no exception to worsening floods and storms in MENA

Storms and floods attack Arab coasts, Libya is no exception
6 min read
15 September, 2023
A tsunami-sized flash flood has wreaked devastation in Libya, leaving parts of coastal cities completely submerged. The New Arab spoke to environmental experts about the floods, how to mitigate damage, and why other countries in MENA are at risk.

On the evening of Sunday, September 10, a severe storm hit the northeastern region of Libya, resulting in more than 5,000 fatalities and thousands of injuries. The city of Derna was heavily impacted, with nearly one-third of it being engulfed by the sea. Heavy rainfall caused two dams to collapse, flooding entire neighbourhoods already submerged in seawater.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on extreme events, it has become clear that climate change has affected variables related to water, such as rainfall and strong wind activity, which are phenomena that increase the severity and speed of floods.

The recent severe storm in Libya has raised questions about the possibility of tropical storms affecting the North African and Middle Eastern regions. After speaking with experts, The New Arab learned that such events are expected to increase in the near future, putting other Arab countries in danger.

Last week, Storm Daniel formed on September 4 and hit several areas in Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria. The storm caused severe damage and the loss of many lives. Mediterranean storms share the features of tropical cyclones and are referred to as "Medicanes". These storms occur two to three times per year.

"In Libya, successive wars destroyed the study centres that were pioneering in several fields and made them empty, isolated, and without authority, which was the tragic result that we are seeing"

What happened in Libya?

Geological expert Mahmoud Al-Desouki told The New Arab that Libya is exposed to "subtropical storms", and that this is "evidenced by the presence of a semi-desert depression in the Libyan coast. Part of this depression is deep above the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, with the other part above the Libyan desert. It wasn't a hurricane."

Mahmoud went on to explain to The New Arab that hurricanes form on the surfaces of the oceans if they have weather conditions and temperatures that enable them to form and deepen on the surfaces of the oceans. He adds that sea level rise amplifies the frequency of extreme sea waves by raising the underlying coastline.

It is crucial to understand the appropriate timing for the likelihood of floods to occur. The geology professor at Suez Canal University emphasised that rising sea levels lead to an increase in the possibility of strong storms, as well as tropical and sub-tropical cyclones. These natural disasters endanger civil facilities and pose a significant threat to human life. Therefore, it is important to be aware of these possibilities to prevent any potential losses.

Map of Libyan cities

A study published on March 23 in the journal Nature revealed that sea level rises lead to more frequent occurrences of extremely high water levels. This is concerning because floods are often caused by rising water levels during a storm. As a result, the risk of disasters increases as the Earth's temperature continues to rise.

Mahmoud also spoke about the dangers of not maintaining dams and having to rely on earth and rock dams which he says are no longer suitable for confronting climate change surprises. Professor Mahmoud El-Desouki believes that the lack of coordination between the meteorological service and those responsible for water dams may have contributed to the worsening effects of the disaster.

The same opinion is expressed by Essam Heggy, a remote sensing expert at the University of Southern California, who believes that the weakness of monitoring devices and communication between concerned authorities contributed to the exacerbation of the effects of the disaster.

Heggy wrote in a post on X, "In Libya, successive wars destroyed the study centres that were pioneering in several fields and made them empty, isolated, and without authority, which was the tragic result that we are seeing."

Libya is no exception

What happened in Libya is neither an exceptional event nor strange to the Arab region. In October of 2021, the coast of the Sultanate of Oman overlooking the Arabian Sea was exposed to a devastating hurricane - Cyclone Shaheen - which caused damage to infrastructure, agricultural land, and homes, and cut off communications towers.

Jasper Verschuur, a researcher in environmental changes at the University of Oxford, said that ports in the Sultanate of Oman are still vulnerable to hurricanes, while in North Africa ports face more operational disruptions due to violent water waves in the Mediterranean Sea. He told The New Arab that some other ports in the Middle East and North Africa region are vulnerable to the risk of river floods. "But the Sultanate of Oman is considered one of the Arab countries most exposed to hurricanes and tropical storms."

Verschuur explains that the total value of material damage identified for all ports in the Middle East and North Africa (100 ports) amounts to 67 million US dollars annually, which only represents 1.45% of the estimated global damage to ports (despite representing 7.5% of ports) but the main issue is that the economies of the most vulnerable countries in the region cannot bear these losses.

The United Nations has blamed the size of the death toll on the legacy of years of war and chaos [Getty Images]
The United Nations blamed the size of the death toll on the legacy of years of war and chaos [Getty Images]

In May 2018, two tropical storms affected the Middle East. Cyclones Sagar and Mekunu developed in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, causing heavy rains and flash flooding after hitting Djibouti. Authorities reported seven deaths and eight missing people due to the cyclones.

In November 2021, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Arab Region launched its report "Natural Disasters in the Middle East and North Africa: A Regional View," in which it warned that urban populations face periodic floods with limited protection infrastructure and poor systems. Inadequate water drainage at the city level and weak flood mitigation measures.

The report indicated an increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones on the coasts of the east and southeast of the Arab region in the Sultanate of Oman, Yemen, Djibouti, and Somalia.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

Mitigating environmental hazards

Hisham Mohamed, emeritus professor of civil engineering at Cairo University, explains that the level of danger resulting from a natural disaster is determined based on two main factors: the strength of the event and the sensitivity of the place exposed to the disaster. “The stronger the event, the greater the risk. Also, the higher the environmental sensitivity and the unpreparedness of the site, the greater the level of risk,” he told The New Arab.

Professor Mohamed adds that natural risks must be taken into account when designing infrastructure. The researcher also stresses the importance of strengthening monitoring and early warning devices in order to facilitate dealing with these disasters as quickly as possible before they cause greater losses.

As for Jasper Verstschoor, he explains that the protection measures followed should depend on the local context and whether climate change will make matters worse or not. For example, in places where coastal flooding is a prevalent risk, climate change will make this more dangerous, and measures such as flood protection or raising civil structures above sea level are inevitable.

Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor at Daily News Egypt. His work has appeared in Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other prominent regional and international media outlets

Follow him on Twitter: @MOHAMMED2SAID