Years of Graft Doomed 2 Dams in Libya, Leaving Thousands in Muddy Graves

For years, the two aging dams loomed in the mountains above the Libyan city of Derna, riddled with cracks and fissures, threatening the thousands of people living in the valley below.

A Turkish company, Arsel Construction, was eventually hired by the Libyan government to upgrade the dams and build a new one. The work, Arsel said on its website at the time, was completed in 2012.

By then, the government had paid millions of dollars to the Turkish contractor for preliminary work, according to a government assessment dated 2011. But Arsel left Libya in the turmoil of the 2011 popular revolt against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the country’s longtime dictator. Neither dam was ever repaired, the assessment said, and no third dam ever materialized.

When a lethal storm rolled up the Mediterranean Sea toward Derna two weeks ago, dumping far more rain than usual on the Green Mountains above the city, the dams burst. An avalanche of water boomed down into the valley below, driving much of Derna out to sea and killing at least 4,000 people. More than 8,000 others are still missing.

Why the dams went unfixed despite repeated warnings is key to understanding the muddy disaster that wrecked a storied city and traumatized a country. It also goes to the heart of the dysfunction and corruption that have consumed Libya ever since rebels overthrew Colonel el-Qaddafi.

Many Libyans hoped to replace Colonel el-Qaddafi with leadership that would give them prosperity and choice, but they exchanged one unelected and corruption-riddled regime for two — the rival eastern and western governments that have divided the country and most of its institutions down the middle, along with its vast oil wealth.

Though Libyans have been demanding to choose their leaders for years, those in charge have put off holding elections for just as long, enriching themselves all the while, analysts say.

Oil reserves that rank among the top 10 globally should provide amply for a population of just seven million, yet public services and basic infrastructure have deteriorated.

A satellite image of one of the dams in July, before the floods. For years, the aging and crack-riddled dams had posed a threat to Derna.Credit…Maxar Technologies

“Are we so cheap?” said Mohammed Habeel, 52, a Derna resident who lost his four children, wife and parents in the floods. “We Libyans aren’t commodities for officials to treat this way.”

The disaster “was a wake-up call for all Libyans about the scale of the crisis we’re experiencing,” he added.

Libya’s attorney general is investigating the disaster, and on Monday eight officials, including Derna’s mayor and several current and former water authority figures, were detained. Prosecutors said those detained were being investigated for mismanagement, negligence and mistakes that contributed to the disaster.

But Libyans have little faith that anyone will be held to account.

Many are renewing calls to throw out the entire political elite: the eastern and western assemblies elected more than a decade ago; the unelected western prime minister whose “interim” government has ruled for nearly three years; the military strongman who dominates the east; and the politicians who rotate in and out of transitional unelected governments.

The failure to maintain Derna’s dams extends back years, to the el-Qaddafi regime, but elites since then have profited too much from political stalemate to rectify such issues, experts say.

Libyan politicians “have held the country ransom for years,” said Mohamed Dorda, the co-founder of Libya Desk, a risk consultancy. “The only time they do work together is to coordinate to extend the conflict or stay in power or spoil elections.”

Arsel, the Turkish company, won the contract to repair the dams above Derna in 2007, signing the $30.1 million deal with Libya’s water authority.

When the rebellion against Mr. el-Qaddafi erupted in 2011, foreign companies including Arsel abandoned work on Libyan projects. Rebels ransacked Arsel’s six sites in Libya, causing $5 million in losses, the company told a Turkish news outlet at the time, providing few details.

Fighters celebrated after routing the last remaining forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from the coastal town of Surt, Libya, in 2011.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Two Arsel shareholders later began arbitration proceedings against Libya, seeking restitution for what it said was the seizure of its projects. But in the dams’ case, at least, Arsel had made millions of dollars for preliminary work.

The dam project broke ground in 2010, according to the government assessment from 2011 reviewed by The New York Times. By Feb. 1, 2011, just before the uprising, the project had managed only “general preparations and earthworks,” the assessment said. No concrete or asphalt had been poured, it said, no pipes laid.

But Libya had already paid about $6 million, the document shows.

Libyan prosecutors said Monday that the water authority officials had sent Arsel further payments years later, after the work had been halted as a result of the uprising, “despite proof that the company had failed to fulfill its contractual obligations.” It did not say how much additional money had been paid, or when the funds had been transferred. Arsel was due to receive another $655,847 at the time that work stopped, according to the 2011 assessment.

Arsel’s owner, Orhan Ozer, declined to comment for this article.

At the time, virtually all public infrastructure was handled by Colonel el-Qaddafi’s central infrastructure agency, the Organization for Development of Administrative Centers, whether or not its name was on the contract. Its head was Ali Dbeiba, whom Libyan prosecutors later accused of routinely awarding contracts to companies he ultimately controlled or that paid him kickbacks, many of them Turkish. Prosecutors said he pocketed as much as $7 billion along the way.

Arsel had several other projects with ODAC, according to an archived version of Arsel’s website, which was taken down after the floods. Arsel was never publicly named in connection with the investigation, which did not identify the specific companies involved.

Mr. Dbeiba stashed the spoils in dozens of bank accounts and luxury properties around the world, according to an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an independent media network. Among the properties were multimillion-dollar homes in Scotland that Libya has asked the Scottish police to investigate.

But the Libyan authorities’ attempts to prosecute Mr. Dbeiba on embezzlement charges went nowhere. He later regained prominence via his nephew, Abdul Hamid Dbeiba, who has been the prime minister of the government of western Libya since 2021.

Abdul Hamid Dbeiba’s interim government was supposed to end with national elections in December 2021. But he has held on to power, partly by paying powerful militias for their support, and partly by boosting his popularity with repairs to the capital and better municipal services, analysts say.

Abdul Hamid Dbeiba, right, in 2021. His interim government was supposed to end with elections in December 2021, but has held on to power.Credit…Pool photo by Sean Gallup

Analysts say the prime minister has also paid to fend off the threat from Khalifa Hifter, the military strongman who controls eastern Libya and has tried repeatedly to seize the west, by giving him access to a share of Libya’s oil revenue.

After years of east-west conflict, the two men have settled into an arrangement in which their power and profits are guaranteed, but basic services are lacking, analysts and activists say.

“This kleptocratic boom, in east and west Libya alike, has led to the decay of infrastructure all across the country, including the Derna dams,” says a forthcoming report on corruption in Libya from The Sentry, a Washington-based nonprofit.

Some infrastructure has been built. But the investments both administrations make tend to be in visible symbols of progress like roads or bridges that may not be needed but give them something to show Libyans — and help line the authorities’ pockets, said Walid Madi, an engineer who worked in Libyan infrastructure for years, now studying in Glasgow.

“They’re not erecting or designing or deciding on new projects based on the country’s needs,” Mr. Madi said, “but based on how they can profit from these projects.”

Many Libyans rely on their own generators and wells to compensate for regular power cuts and lack of running water. Even normal amounts of rain can flood Tripoli, the western capital, and other cities.

Libya’s meteorological service, which issued warnings about the storm that hit Derna, but not about the dangers the dams posed, is chronically underfunded, leaving it short-staffed and unable to perform basic maintenance on equipment, Petteri Taalas, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, said in an interview.

In Derna, state auditors in Tripoli said in a 2021 report, more than $2.3 million allocated for maintaining the two dams was never used.

A previous fund dedicated to rebuilding Derna after it was partly destroyed in post-2011 conflict ultimately resulted in few tangible improvements, analysts say, leading Libyans to accuse the officials who oversaw the fund of stealing it.

The aftermath of the floods in Derna. In the absence of a coordinated government response, Libyans from across the country came to help with relief efforts.Credit…Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Analysts and experts say the divided and dysfunctional governments also contributed to the chaotic early response to the floods. In the absence of a coordinated official response, Libyans from across the country rushed to Derna to help.

“At a time when all aspects of Libyan society are working together,” said Mr. Dorda of Libya Desk, “Libya’s politicians are in their own reality, figuring out how they can divide the cake between themselves.”

Islam Alatrash contributed reporting from Derna, Libya, Safak Timur from Istanbul, Hwaida Saadfrom Beirut, Lebanon and Nada Rashwan from Cairo.

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