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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

North Africa Devastated by Historic Earthquake and Flooding

A major challenge for humanitarian action is access to the flood-hit areas, as roads have been seriously degraded or destroyed.

Medicines, food, body bags, first aid kits and household items from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are being distributed to communities in Libya to assist the thousands of families in need after the devastating floods in the country’s northeast.

The United Nations (UN) has said there have been reports that some 20,000 people may have lost their lives in the massive flooding triggered by Storm Daniel over the past week. The UN relief chief Martin Griffiths said that 900,000 people in the country had been affected, “on top of a situation where 300,000 people in Libya already needed humanitarian aid”.

Additional ICRC teams are being sent to the region to distribute humanitarian assistance. The ICRC is also strengthening its forensics team in Benghazi as it distributes 6,000 body bags to help authorities and the Libyan Red Crescent Society ensure dignified treatment of the dead.

“This disaster was violent and brutal. A wave 7 meters high wiped out buildings and washed infrastructure into the sea. Now family members are missing, dead bodies are washing back up on shore, and homes are destroyed. The city faces immense emotional trauma,” said Yann Fridez, the head of ICRC’s Libya delegation, which had a team in Derna to support families with micro-economic activities when the floodwaters overwhelmed the city.

Kitchen sets, mattresses and hygiene items are to be distributed in Derna in coming weeks jointly with the Libyan Red Crescent Society. Medicines are also being donated to authorities and Libyan Red Crescent in coming days.

“It’s heartening to see a sense of unity among the population and authorities who are uniting to provide as much assistance as possible. But this is a long road now. It will take many months, maybe years, for residents to recover from this huge level of damage,” Mr Fridez said.

A major challenge for humanitarian action is access to the flood-hit areas, as roads have been seriously degraded or destroyed. The ICRC is also evaluating the risk posed by unexploded ordnance and abandoned munition stores in Derna, an additional challenge to residents, emergency responders and authorities now working to alleviate the hardship. And the UN’s Griffiths said challenges included coordinating with the internationally recognized government and the de facto authorities in the east, discovering the “full extent” of the disaster, as floods and torrents have destroyed buildings and sludge was still concealing the “level of death and need”, as well as “getting the right aid to the right people at the right time”. “That’s why coordination is so important,” he said. “It’s not a bureaucratic issue, it’s a prioritization issue. Helping key humanitarian agencies to do the job they do so well.”

Griffiths stressed that in Libya, “climate and capacity have collided to cause this terrible tragedy”.

The Libyan floods are the second major disaster to befall North Africa in recent days, after an earthquake in Morocco claimed nearly 3,000 lives. The powerful quake struck shortly after 10pm local time on September 8, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale at a depth of 18.5 km, with the epicenter located in the High Atlas mountains, some 71 km southwest of the historic city of Marrakech, which has suffered substantial devastation. According to media reports, several houses in the city of 840,000 collapsed and other buildings suffered structural damage. The epicentral zone however is not densely populated.

Although the early figures were “terrible enough”, Griffiths said, they are likely to be overtaken by events as rescuers work through the rubble.

The UN humanitarian chief stressed that the response in Morocco was moving from the initial phase, when the focus is on finding survivors and providing for the internment of those killed, to phase two, where supporting the survivors with aid – shelter, food, medicine – becomes the main priority.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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