COP28: Libya must learn the climate justice lessons of Derna
It's been two and a half months since the torrential Storm Daniel ripped through eastern Libya, devastating the city of Derna along the Mediterranean Sea.
The storm's aftermath resulted in flooding large portions of the city, with up to 20,000 victims dead or missing. In just one day, approximately 414 mm of rainfall fell, a devastating amount for a semi-arid climate region, which typically receives an average of 200 to 250 mm of rainfall per year.
The rainfall and flooding overwhelmed two dams on the outskirts of Derna, which had been widely known to be in need of repair. The dams collapsed, sending a massive wave of water into the city centre.
The ruins of Derna post-Storm Daniel are more than just the wreckage of a city that bore the brunt of nature's fury. They stand as a glaring testimony to the longstanding negligence of Libya's elites toward environmental challenges and the imminent threat of climate change.
"The ruins of Derna post-Storm Daniel are more than just the wreckage of a city that bore the brunt of nature's fury. They stand as a glaring testimony to the longstanding negligence of Libya's elites toward environmental challenges and the imminent threat of climate change"
As the global community gears up for the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties (COP28), the floods in Derna serve as a poignant reminder of how unprepared leaders can jeopardise our present and future.
For years, Libya has been dealing with political upheaval and socio-economic challenges. However, the environmental conservation and climate change issue has often been ignored amidst all the turmoil.
The country's elite power circle has mainly focused on consolidating power, resources, and wealth, while failing to recognise Libya's vulnerability to changing climate patterns and environmental degradation.
The repercussions of this neglect aren't just limited to dwindling forest covers or rising temperatures. They have real-life, palpable implications for the ordinary citizen.
When the dams outside #Derna broke, they sent a deluge of water into the city centre.— The New Arab Voice (@TheNewArabVoice) October 14, 2023
Thousands were killed. Thousands more disappeared.
We looked at the flood and the aftermath in the latest episode of @TheNewArabVoice. https://t.co/yHwgipYCTN
Derna's plight is a case in point. In what was once a bustling city, now 25 percent of Derna lies submerged and ravaged by the floods, its populace grappling with the aftermath of a disaster that could perhaps have been mitigated if not entirely averted.
Derna's tragedy is not an isolated incident. Across Libya, signs of environmental stress are evident — from depleting water tables to encroaching desertification. Yet, the elites, ensconced in their bubbles of privilege, seem indifferent to these alarming indicators.
This detachment is symptomatic of a larger malaise: a disconnect between those in power and those they are meant to serve. Environmental neglect is more than just a lapse in judgement; it's a failure in governance.
Political factions are more concerned about consolidating power and ensuring immediate survival than addressing challenges that manifest over decades. The Libyan elites' approach to climate change reflects a broader pattern where pressing issues are sidelined in favour of short-term political or economic gains. This mindset, unfortunately, comes at a grave cost.
It's not that those who were or still are in power are unaware of the impending threats posed by environmental degradation.
Local initiatives and even grassroots movements have consistently underscored the need for Libya to prioritise and address its environmental challenges. However, what's been lacking is the political will and strategic vision to bring about lasting change.
Although the ruling class exerts significant influence throughout the nation, societal values and comprehension also play a vital role. The advancement of environmental education and awareness within several parts of Libya remains in its nascent stages.
The upcoming COP28 summit represents a critical juncture for the international community, particularly for nations like Libya, grappling with climate change's immediate consequences. In light of the undeniable evidence of mismanagement and neglect of mounting environmental challenges, Libya must acknowledge its environmental challenges and commit to a robust action plan.
Rather than distancing themselves from the problem, the nation's elite must take the lead in bringing about effective environmental policy and engaging with the challenges at hand on a governmental level.
Libya can chart a sustainable path forward by leveraging international partnerships, technological advancements, and indigenous knowledge. It is imperative that Libya takes immediate action to address its environmental challenges, and this can only be achieved through a concerted effort to address the issue at all levels of society.
There are three crucial points to consider regarding climate change in Libya. Firstly, the country's broader development strategy must integrate climate adaptation and mitigation. The reconstruction of Derna presents an opportunity to create a blueprint for building environmentally friendly cities and infrastructure across the country. It is concerning that this approach remains unknown to this day.
Secondly, the Libyan populace plays a pivotal role in holding its leaders accountable. The story of Derna should serve as a rallying cry for the citizens to demand environmental justice, transparency, and accountability from those in power.
"The floods in Derna have exposed the neglect of the past, but they also offer a chance for redemption"
With the world converging at COP28, Libya has a significant opportunity to redefine its environmental narrative. The floods in Derna have exposed the neglect of the past, but they also offer a chance for redemption.
Lastly, Libya's environmental challenges are complex and require an integrated approach for practical solutions. Instead of isolated efforts, bringing together economic reforms, international collaborations, societal awareness campaigns, and, most importantly, a political will that prioritises long-term benefits is necessary.
While the apathy of Libyan elites is a significant challenge, it is just one of many issues. Libya is a country blessed with natural wealth, but the real wealth lies in recognising and fulfilling its responsibilities towards the environment, land, and future generations.
Malak Altaeb is an independent consultant, blogger, and researcher originally from Libya and currently based in Paris, France. She has a master's degree in Environmental Policy from Sciences Po University in Paris and a bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from Tripoli, Libya. Currently, she is an ecological security fellow at the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), Strategic Risks Institute, as well as a Non-Resident scholar in the water and climate program at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, DC. Malak was previously a non-resident fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), where she focused on food security in North Africa.
Follow her on Twitter: @MalakLibya1
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.