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Aid arrives in Libya as death toll from floods reaches 11,300

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The damage caused by the devastating floods has been exacerbated by Libya’s poor infrastructure. (AP pic)

DERNA: A week after a wall of water devastated the Libyan coastal city of Derna, sweeping thousands to their deaths, the focus on Sunday increasingly turned to caring for the survivors.

Amid the chaotic rescue efforts in the war-scarred country, the death toll from the floods has varied widely, from more than 3,000 to over 11,000.

The most recent official toll, from the health minister of the eastern-based administration, Othman Abdeljalil, was that 3,252 people were killed.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Sunday warned that the toll from Derna alone could be as high as 11,300, with another 10,100 missing.

But the Libyan Red Crescent, which was cited by the UN agency, had previously denied a UN death toll of over 10,000, saying it only had one official spokesman and calling on media to “exercise caution and accuracy”.

The conflicting tolls are testament to the division and absence of centralised power that have wracked Libya since 2011’s Nato-backed uprising that overthrew dictator Moamer Kadhafi and plunged the country into years of war.

Aid is now arriving in the North African country as the world mobilises to help emergency services cope with the aftermath of the deadly flood.

At least 40,000 people have been displaced across northeastern Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration, which cautioned the actual number is likely higher given the difficulty accessing the worst-affected areas.

Two dams upstream from Derna burst a week ago under the pressure of torrential rains from the hurricane-strength Storm Daniel.

The dams had been built upriver from the port city of 100,000 people after it was hit by significant flooding in the mid-20th century.

The banks of a dried riverbed or wadi running through the city centre had been heavily built on, and last week’s torrent swept everything before it as it rushed towards the Mediterranean.

Cracks in the dam

A week on, bodies are still being found, some washing up on the sea shore.

A rescue crew from Malta’s civil protection department discovered a beach strewn with dead bodies on Friday, the Times of Malta newspaper reported.

International aid is arriving from the United Nations, Europe and the Middle East, offering some relief.

The aid includes water, food, tents, blankets, hygiene kits and medicines and emergency surgical supplies, as well as body bags and heavy machinery to help clear the debris.

In Al-Bayda, 100km west of Derna, residents waded through the layer of mud caking the floors of what were once their homes.

Ayman Jabril Saleh, a resident of Al-Bayda who survived the flood with his family inside their house, said “when we saw the state of Derna, we felt blessed” for suffering material losses only.

The damage for the devastating flooding brought by Storm Daniel was exacerbated by poor infrastructure in Libya.

Questions are being asked as to why the disaster could not have been prevented, when cracks in the dams have been known about since 1998.

Prosecutor-general Al-Seddik Al-Sour has announced an investigation into the circumstances leading to the collapse.

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Like much of Libya’s crumbling infrastructure, the two dams in Derna fell into disrepair during years of neglect, conflict and division.

The country is currently ruled by two rival administrations — the UN-backed, internationally recognised government in Tripoli, and one based in the disaster-hit east.

Disease risk

With tens of thousands of people displaced, aid organisations have warned of the risks posed by leftover landmines and other unexploded ordnance that may have been shifted by floodwaters.

The risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera are also high, according to aid groups.

The National Centre for Disease Control reported that at least 55 children were poisoned by drinking polluted water in Derna.

But the eastern-based health minister insisted that samples were being analysed daily to avoid contamination, urging residents not to use groundwater.

Abdeljalil also denied reports of a possible evacuation of Derna, saying that only “certain areas” could be “isolated” to facilitate relief efforts.

To assist the hundreds of thousands in need, the UN has launched an appeal for more than US$71 million.

The scale of the devastation has prompted shows of solidarity, as volunteers in Tripoli have collected aid for the flood victims.

Survivors in Derna are glad to be alive, even as they mourn the loss of loved ones.

“In this city, every single family has been affected,” said Derna resident Mohammad al-Dawali.

Seir Mohammed Seir, a member of the security forces, spoke of a three-month-old girl who lived through the tragedy in Derna.

“Her entire family died, she was the only one who survived.”

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