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Disastrous Flooding in Libya Is Result of Both Climate Crisis and 2011 NATO War

Richard Falk discusses Libya’s vulnerability to disaster due to internal and external forces.

Turkiye's State Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), along with the teams from Russia, Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Algeria and UAE conduct search and rescue operations after the severe flood caused by Storm Daniel in Derna, Libya, on September 19, 2023.

Storm Daniel was recorded as one of the most lethal Mediterranean cyclones in the history of the world. It initially formed as a low-pressure event in early September 2023, significantly flooding Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. The pressure system then developed into a tropical storm and moved toward Libya’s coast where it caused disastrous flooding. Daniel’s severe rainfall led to flooding that caused more than €2 billion in damages. Libya felt the worst of rains that caused the destruction of two separate dams nearby Derna, resulting in thousands dead and missing.

In this exclusive interview with Truthout, international relations scholar Richard Falk discusses the flood and Libya’s vulnerability to disaster due to internal and external forces. He explains the region’s political and environmental vulnerabilities, and breaks down how international precedents contributed to a decline of critical infrastructure.

Unprecedented flooding has been occurring in very different parts of the world, strengthening widespread beliefs that climate change underlies the near simultaneity of such extreme weather events and the prospects for their increased frequency and severity in the future and beyond. The recent flash floods that descended on a Himalayan community in the Mustang district of Nepal, for instance, is powerfully illustrative of this pattern, Falk asserts.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on the flooding of Libya and the overall region, and explain how other vulnerable locations in the world are analogous to this area of increased vulnerability both environmentally and geopolitically?

Richard Falk: Weather specialists agree that Storm Daniel was the worst storm to affect Libya within living memory and indeed the worst to sweep across much of the Mediterranean. It possessed qualities usually associated with hurricanes, or what are variously called typhoons or cyclones in most regions of the Pacific. In the Mediterranean, stormy weather with this intensity is rare, and when such storms occur they are known by weather people as “medicanes.” A fragile consensus of experts who study storms believe that in the future, they will come with even less frequency due to global warming, but when they do, will come with greater intensity and a wider path of devastating effects.

On broader geographical scales, there is gathering evidence and awareness that natural disasters, because of global warming, are exacting a heavier toll on poorer and least-developed countries, and having similar differential impacts within many countries. This is partly due to less strict building codes, as well as regulatory tendencies toward looser standards of implementation in poorer urban and rural areas. The terrible damage caused by the recent earthquakes, wildfires and floods in many countries are confirmatory, although the earthquakes themselves cannot be blamed on climate change. In Turkey, Syria and Morocco, the 2023 earthquakes resulted the high death and devastation statistics that were allegedly magnified by poor building practices, corruption at the state and local levels, and incompetent disaster responses. These deficiencies also worsen the impact of climate changes involving desertification, flooding, drought temperature rises, wildfires and extreme weather events.

Hopefully, the weather of 2023 responsible for great harm from both human and natural causes will lead many governments to invest more heavily in insulating physical structures, logistic infrastructures, electric grids, dams, and medical facilities from both natural disasters and human caused climate change. The precautionary success of such undertakings will be tested by the doing, and whether global warming is perceived in years to become as responsible for more frequent and severe forms of extreme weather. A lot will depend also as to the containment of the harmfully distracting spillover effects and stresses generated by major conflicts such as the ongoing Ukraine war that continue to capture most of the available political oxygen.

How has climate change contributed to this natural disaster in your estimation? Does the climate crisis stand as a major foreign policy concern for countries around the world in your view?

It seems clear that natural disasters of the sort that caused the Libyan dams at Wadi Derna to collapse were aggravated by the extraordinarily dense and heavy rainfall that accompanied the storm, but this is not the whole story. It was long known in Libya that the dams needed major repairs, and an appropriate amount to do this had been budgeted prior to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) war of 2011, but was then deferred, and in the atmosphere of strife and chaos that followed the intervention, the repair project was never undertaken. Of course, it is conjectural whether, if repairs had been made prior to the medicane, the dams would have held and the torrential flooding avoided.

The degree to which foreign policy is responsive to the challenges being posed by climate change is difficult to be precise about or to provide a responsible basis for generalized assertions. It seems clear that on a systemic level, governments acting collectively and individually to curb carbon emissions and the release of other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere have not been doing enough to prevent further warming. Although there is a widespread rhetorical recognition of the urgency of addressing climate change in an effective and equitable manner, there is little evidence on the level of policy and behavior that the current quality and quantity of responses will prove capable of addressing the challenge, thus leaving future generations in an increasingly precarious situation.

Has the pursuit of natural resources, influence over territory, and Western hegemonic impulses played a role in making the tragedy worse in your view?

Yes, certainly historically during colonial and imperial relationships, and even recently, given that neoliberal trade and investment practices have been predatory. The recent series of postcolonial military coups in West Africa in the last few years have exposed extreme exploitative fiscal and resource relationships imposed by France that have undermined many of the material benefits of formal political independence granted to Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in 1960. This pattern of “colonialism after colonialism” had permanently consigned the peoples of these countries to impoverished lives and made their states awkwardly dependent on their former colonial masters. The plight of this group of countries, which are in the news because of their anti-colonial challenges in the last several years, is illustrative of broader patterns of persisting predatory and hegemonic practices throughout the Global South, including in the Latin American backyard of the United States.

In the face of such realities, the failure to address climate change reflects two mutually reinforcing tendencies: 1.) the control of the economy of such countries by foreign and collaborating domestic elites with a primary interest in commercially profitable arrangements with respect to resource development and import/export marketing; and 2.) the absence of a national leadership empowered and motivated to act independently with respect to interests, public health and well-being and in service to global public interests.

The revolts against the French role in its former African colonies, including the demand that its troops be withdrawn, gives hope that these postcolonial abusive economic and political relations are finally being challenged. After all, 63 years have passed since the West African French colonies achieved national statehood. Also hopeful is the emergence in Latin America of a few progressive governments (Colombia, Chile, Brazil) dedicated to economic nationalism which might presage the existential weakening of U.S. hegemonic control and exploitative economic relations throughout the hemisphere.

Some on the left were quick to place blame on the bipartisan consensus in regard to the Libyan intervention, especially on former President Barack Obama and NATO. How valid is this critique and how do you gauge the press coverage of the disaster? Is it reasonable to say that misusing the United Nations to uphold the Libyan intervention weakened the UN Security Council?

I tend to agree that the Libyan intervention in 2011, led by NATO and backed by President Obama, played an important yet somewhat indeterminate role in the magnitude of the recent natural disaster. As already mentioned, the Muammar Gaddafi government was aware of the perilous condition of the dams in Wadi Derna and had budgeted for their repair. Then came the regime-changing intervention in March of 2011, throwing the country into a condition of political chaos from which Libya has yet to emerge. During such a prolonged national emergency, the preoccupation with the internal conflict prevailed, and the dam repairs were never undertaken.

The NATO war, with Obama “leading from behind” epitomized the regressive failure of U.S. foreign policy following the Vietnam War. Humanitarianism (or democratization) was substituted for anti-communism, and ground combat on the NATO side was avoided to reduce casualties on the intervening side to near zero. The UN Security Council was cynically induced to give its blessings by disguising the NATO mission, as spelled out in Security Resolution 1973. This UN decision pretended to do nothing more by way of UN authorization to use force than establish a “no-fly zone,” and even this, for the sole protection of the civilian population of Benghazi.

Micah Zenko, writing in the mainstream Foreign Policy, convincingly argues that from day one of the military operation, it was designed to be a regime-changing intervention of a hostile government in a resource-rich country. Beyond this, the postintervention state-building efforts were as disappointing for the intervenors as for the targeted society, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

In my judgment, it’s not fair to blame the left for critically recalling the NATO war and Obama’s role. It would be unfair to condemn the intervention on the ground that it would make Libya more vulnerable to future national disasters. It is correct, as argued here, to conclude that an unintended side effect of the intervention was the failure to follow through on plans to repair the dams responsible for the worst flooding and loss of life.

What I do find rather surprising, and a reflection of poor foreign policy advising, was the importance attached to obtaining Security Council authorization for the use of force in Libya, perhaps trying to overcome the weight of the Kosovo and Iraq precedents in which the U.S. circumvented the Security Council because it had no prospect of avoiding vetoes by opponents of the interventions. Yet the shortsightedness of bearing the costs of obtaining this authorization for Libya was to undermine the trust of China and Russia that had induced these veto powers to abstain from vetoing Resolution 1973 based on strong reassurances by NATO countries of the limited scope and humanitarian purpose of the intervention. Throwing the UN under the bus in this way has led, quite predictably, to an atmosphere of mistrust in the Security Council, preventing genuine UN humanitarian activism in Syria and elsewhere, and further marginalizing the organization at a time when it is most needed to achieve global and human security.

In terms of Libya, what are the physical, social and economic costs of climate change and flooding overall that are perhaps instructive in other regions and parts of the world?

As with Libya its unprecedented severity was a wakeup call for the Nepalese people, especially for climate change experts and disaster risk managers. Anil Pokhrel, who heads Nepal’s risk management team for the government used these words to describe the recent flooding of Himalayan Mountain villages: “The extreme events in Mustang this year surprised us because it was unusual and beyond our imagination. Now we are trying to comprehend what happened and what we can do to avoid such events in the future, but we are certain that the risk of unexpected disasters is increasing.”

We should also not forget that terrible monsoon flooding did great damage to Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and in case of Pakistan, was the worst flooding in the country’s history, causing damage estimated at $14.9 billion and reconstruction with an eye toward future catastrophe prevention at $30 billion. In these several cases, the severity of near-apocalyptic flooding is attributed to the global warming of historic proportions of nearby oceanic waters leading to greatly increased rainfall over shorter time intervals.