US destroyer firing a missile on Libya as part of Nato operation, 2011 US destroyer firing a missile on Libya as part of Nato operation, 2011. Photo: Public Domain

Climate induced extreme weather on its own did not lead to the deaths in Libya, Western intervention wrecked the country first, argues Kevin Ovenden

The scale of the catastrophe that has engulfed eastern Libya is as difficult to grasp as it is distressing to contemplate. As of this weekend, over 11,000 people were confirmed dead from the flooding. A further 10,000 or more – perhaps many more – are missing. Many thousands of inhabitants of the port of Derna were drowned and washed out to sea as six-meter-high flood waters all but wiped the city off the map when two dams above it failed under rainfall from the rare Mediterranean equivalent of a Caribbean hurricane.

The same storm, Storm Daniel, had days earlier caused devastation in central Greece, and parts of Turkey and Bulgaria. Not the same horrendous level of casualties, but incredible flooding and damage as up to 60cm of rain fell in some areas of central Greece in 24 hours.

The flood waters have not yet receded. There is a growing danger of mass outbreaks of disease as tens of thousands of animal carcasses rot and the water reserves are polluted. Some 22% of Greece’s arable land is affected, accounting for 5% of gross national product. When food prices spike in coming months in Greece, it will not be the fault of workers’ wage demands. But the enormity of what has happened in Libya in immediate human terms dwarfs that, as did last year’s flooding in Pakistan which displaced 33 million people and engulfed a third of the country.

That climate change is producing extreme and devastating weather events is beyond question. Indeed, despite attempts by the fossil-fuel industry and reckless politicians to exaggerate the degree of public scepticism about the science of climate change, most people don’t doubt that this is happening and they want to see major action in response.

A statistically based analysis will be forthcoming over to what extent the warmed Mediterranean Sea contributed to the severity of this storm, but that it was a contributory factor is simply a fact. There is an awful lot more to this catastrophe, however, than that. It was exemplified on Friday in an appeal by the Obama Foundation for people to donate to charities and NGOs that are responding to the disaster.

Of course, the foundation of former president Barack Obama goes on to cite the reality of human-caused climate change and the need to take action over it. Elsewhere, it writes of the need for global, sustainable development.

The Nato intervention

But the bitter contradiction of being lectured by these people about these very real issues is this. It was with fossil-fuel and raw-materials extraction in mind that Obama backed Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy in a regime-change war in Libya in 2011 that resulted in replacing an authoritarian and corrupt developmental state with several warlord states that maintain the corruption and repression, but have developed nothing. The opposite is the case. They have cannibalised the country.

Libya has a small population but relatively very large oil and gas reserves. Under the nationalist regime of Muammar Gaddafi, which came to power in coup against the monarchy in 1969, the oil largesse allowed the state to develop and offer improvements to a population of six million, even if that went alongside sharp class divisions.

With those divisions, and efforts to hold together regional and sectional elites in a fractious compact, went heavy repression of those who threatened the state setup. It is in no way to gloss over that brutality, or to paint Gaddafi’s Libya as in some way socialist, to recognise that, as with other ‘developmental’ post-colonial states of the time, there were socially useful infrastructure and social projects, even if there was a lot of waste and corruption.

So on all the UN indices, Libya ranked at or towards the top in human development on the continent of Africa. That it was based upon the exploitation of fossil fuels that were heating the planet with the consequences we see today is a bitter irony.

It is not one of which those who seized upon the internal struggle in Libya during the Arab Spring of 2011 to enforce regime change from without can speak. That British-French-US intervention was about rearranging the division of the spoils between external powers and internal elites. Gaddafi had already come to arrangements with the former colonial powers. Tony Blair gave him his endorsement.

But in the turmoil of 2011, the Western powers looked at a flaky and isolated figure and thought they could bring about, out of chaotic civil war, something more favourable for them. They did succeed in ousting Gaddafi, but at the cost of shattering the country into rival fiefdoms, which they proved unable to forge into a new compact binding the different elite interests together.

Destruction of a society

And that is what underlies the proximate reasons for the scale of the catastrophe in Derna, beyond the overall issues of climate chaos and elites sacrificing the people, that are in one way or another common threats to each of us wherever we are. The Western intervention did not end a civil war. It fuelled one for many years. Two rival governments, one based in the west in Tripoli, the other in the east in Benghazi. Other militias and forces grabbed what they could. Those included the so-called Islamic State which occupied Derna for some time.

So not a new, Western-oriented modernisation of Libya. Rather, the destruction of what modernisation had taken place under authoritarian conditions, with only a proliferation of militias in its place, each seeking alliance with one or other bloc of outside powers. The divisions among those powers are not reducible to the West versus the rest. Italy and France have backed clashing military forces.

Thus a once advanced social-state and infrastructure have gone backwards. The Guardian newspaper reported on Thursday:

‘A Turkish firm, Arsel, had been contracted to work on the dams [above Derna] in 2007 but left Libya in 2011 when fighting broke out and had not returned. Part of a sum of 39m dinars set aside for the dam’s maintenance in 2003 was later taken back from the ministry of water resources. After the company left the country, its machinery was stolen and the building site went into disuse…’

All too true. The same newspaper, however, greeted the fall of Gaddafi and his lynching in the street in 2011 with an editorial headlined; ‘An Honourable Intervention. A Hopeful Future.’

As some of us pointed out at the time, the claques applauding war would soon move on: to Syria perhaps, as happened, when the reality of the splintering of Libyan society and state could not be ignored. And that was indeed what happened, along with the EU and its component states coming to deals with the militias for them to use the most barbaric means to stop refugee flows into Europe, while European oil executives bargained for their share of the profits, offering suitable bribes to functionaries of a barely existent state.

Wisdom after the fact

So great was the calamity of the West’s war on Libya in 2011 that the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Selection Committee produced a damning report excoriating David Cameron and the entire decision to go to war. It was published seven years ago this week. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The anti-war movement, however, had the foresight to oppose the disaster. Just eleven MPs did, which rather goes to show how parliamentary and official opinion are indicative neither of what is right nor of public feeling as a whole.

Five years later the Commons report blew apart what had been the central ‘just in time’ argument for war in the fevered days of March 2011, that Gaddafi was about to commit a major massacre. It instead found: ‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.’

The prospect of many thousands killed deeply concerned the anti-war movement as it argued for an alternative to war that would answer the threat of mass killing all round. The Nato governments, however, decided to press on, using humanitarian feeling as a cover for an intervention built around their own interests.

And now, twelve years on, we have an unimaginable disaster of maybe over 20,000 dead. Bodies are now washing back from the Mediterranean onto the beaches near Derna. This is after tens of thousands were killed and more whose lives have been foreshortened by the collapse of what was once a fairly developed, if highly repressive, African and Arab state.

We see in this disaster certainly the intersection of climate chaos, the cumulative damage of fossil fuels, and maldevelopment. Even with infrastructure investment, much building in Libya before 2011 amounted to vanity projects and lining the pockets of one regional elite or another. The ‘Great Man-made River’ was both a useful irrigation project and a bombastic extravagance.

But there is an immediate connection here to something else that is very much part of our world of crisis. It is to the chaotic and catastrophic results of wars of intervention and regime change, of wars in general which are becoming more and more dangerous. What is so horrifically revealed in Libya is a storm away from being so in Iraq with the degeneration of its society and basic infrastructure, following a war supposedly to liberate the people.

Of course, overarching this are extreme weather and climate chaos. But they are illuminating and amplifying other human-driven catastrophes. Meanwhile, the Association of Civil Engineers in Greece is pointing out that the maldevelopment of the plain of Thessaly and its hydrological systems increased the devastation of the flooding. We need to draw all this together in the struggles we are involved in, and in an insurgent, socialist politics.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.