Moroccan, Libyan chaos renews climate reconciliation agenda

Morocco, Libya disasters offer hope of climate reconciliation
18 September, 2023

Morocco and Libya have had the shared misfortune of dominating headlines in recent days, the former devastated by its most lethal earthquake in decades on September 8, the latter hit by city-destroying flash floods on September 11.

The natural disasters claimed thousands of lives, with the death toll climbing by the day. These dual tragedies have led the international community to rush aid to both countries as they express solidarity with each other.

Yet the twin horrors in Morocco and Libya have another trait in common: climate change contributed to these natural disasters or could amplify their effects in the days, weeks, and months to come.

"Storm Daniel offers a jarring reminder of the ways in which climate change has made extreme weather the new normal in North Africa and beyond"

The starkest example of climate change’s role in exacerbating natural disasters has been the flooding in the east of Libya, which took thousands of lives in the now-flattened city of Derna and perhaps as many as 20,000. After Storm Daniel struck Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey earlier this month and killed over a dozen, the cyclone drenched the Libyan coast with a much higher amount of rain than usual—far more than the soil could absorb.

With the arrival of Storm Daniel, the area around Derna took on 400 millimetres of rain, compared to the historical rate of 1.5 millilitres for all of September. The water, prevented from seeping into the ground, instead flowed overland and into two dams near Derna. The overwhelmed dams then burst and disgorged a mountain of water on the city.

Storm Daniel offers a jarring reminder of the ways in which climate change has made extreme weather the new normal in North Africa and beyond. The Moroccan earthquake’s connection to climate change, on the other hand, is less obvious if not less dire.

Morocco has been suffering from high-casualty earthquakes for much of its history. Well before this month’s earthquake in the vicinity of Marrakesh claimed 2,900 lives and counting, an earthquake in the nearby city of Agadir caused between 12,000 and 15,000 deaths in 1960.

None of Morocco’s earthquakes appear to have direct links to climate change. Rather, climate change’s impact could manifest in the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather in regions of the kingdom still assessing the devastation from the earthquake.

The bulk of the earthquake’s damage and destruction fell upon often-isolated communities in the countryside between Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains. Residents in some of the affected villages have voiced concerns about local rock formations shattered by the tremors, worried that winter floods could sweep the rubble into settlements downstream and crush them.

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Some afflicted areas, such as Ouarzazate Province, have already seen deadly floods in recent years. And the extreme weather has sometimes taken more unconventional forms: earlier this year, a surprise snowstorm blanketed Ouarzazate Province and much of the Moroccan countryside, choking roads and rendering many remote communities inaccessible. As Moroccan towns and villages spend the coming months recovering from the earthquake, extreme weather this winter could make reconstruction more difficult or even add to the death toll.

The immediate aftermath of the natural disasters has already hindered the provision of assistance by local authorities and foreign aid agencies. In Morocco, the earthquake blocked or shattered key inland roads in the Atlas region, long regarded as some of the most treacherous and worst maintained in the kingdom. Storm Daniel likewise cut off key roads in Libya, leaving Derna and neighbouring cities such as Susa almost impossible to reach.

Amid the inescapable devastation of natural disasters, Moroccan and Libyan leaders have drawn domestic and international ire for avoidable problems well within their power to control. Morocco’s slow, top-down approach to disaster management has frustrated victims of the earthquake, with even the King coming in for criticism.

In Derna and its surroundings, some locals have blamed the Libyan National Army—the dominant militia and ultimate authority in the area—for failing to maintain the dams that burst. Meteorologists forecast Storm Daniel’s touchdown in Libya well in advance, a missed opportunity for authorities to have made more extensive, effective preparations.

But Morocco’s earthquake and Libya’s floods provide a wake-up call for North Africa and the international community alike. By reviewing what went wrong in these cases, officials, humanitarians, and experts can better prepare for the next natural disaster and climate change’s ever-present role, whether it strikes in Marrakesh, Derna, or further afield.

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The silver lining of the natural disasters has been globe-spanning shows of solidarity. After Morocco spent years cultivating a diverse roster of allies, countries as far away as Taiwan pledged to support the kingdom’s response to the earthquake. Turkey, meanwhile, has sent humanitarian aid to regions controlled by the Libyan National Army despite backing rivals on the battlefield.

With climate change making natural disasters more frequent, these same unlikely coalitions will have an important role in helping countries prepare for and recover from extreme weather.