YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – As corpses continue to be washed ashore following the Sunday collapse of two Libyan dams that unleashed a lethal flood, Pope Francis has voiced his spiritual closeness to the affected people and called for international solidarity in the effort to help the suffering people.
A major Mediterranean storm, Daniel, caused the dams to collapse on September 10. Flood waters then swept across the eastern coastal town of Derna, devastating the urban center and wiping a quarter of the town off the map.
As of the morning of September 13, at least 6,000 people were believed to have been killed, with more than 10,000 missing. More than 30,000 people have been displaced.
As the country buries the dead, Pope Francis has called for prayers for those affected.
“I invite you to join my prayers for those who have lost their lives, for their families and for the displaced people,” the pope said at his general audience on Wednesday.
“May we not fail in our solidarity with these brothers and sisters, tried by such a devastating calamity,” he said.
In an earlier telegram to the Apostolic Nuncio to Libya, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the pope “was deeply saddened to learn of the immense loss of life and destruction caused by the flooding in the eastern part of Libya, and he sends the assurance of his prayers for the souls of the deceased and all who mourn their loss.”
“His holiness also expresses heartfelt spiritual closeness to the injured, to those who fear for their missing loved ones, and to the emergency personnel providing rescue and relief assistance,” Parolin said.
“Upon all affected by this tragedy, Pope Francis willingly invokes the divine blessings of consolation, strength and perseverance,” the telegram stated.
Bishop George Bugeja, a Maltese, who is the apostolic vicar of Tripoli, told OSV News that “the water came out with mud and destroyed anything that was in its way: Houses, streets.”
Yann Fridez, head of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya, told broadcaster France24 that “the city of Derna was submerged by waves 23 feet high that destroyed everything in their path.”
“The human toll is enormous,” he said.
In a statement Friday, a copy of which was sent to Crux, the International Rescue Committee said it was “gravely concerned about the protection needs of those caught up in this tragedy, especially thousands of women and children who have to leave their homes in search of safety.”
It called for urgent emergency shelter for those unable to return to their homes, and psychosocial support for those who have seen their lives literally washed away.
“Medical services have also been impacted with patients evacuated to other cities, including those that were also affected, we have heard that many clinics and hospitals in the area have become overwhelmed and are exceeding capacities. Ambulances are in need of repair, physical access challenges and needs for logistical support are making it difficult for health volunteers to reach affected areas,” said Elie Abouaoun, IRC Libya Country Director.
“There are also fears about the possibility of waterborne diseases taking hold after sanitation and hygiene infrastructure was severely damaged. Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities will be required to prevent a further crisis within a crisis,” he said.
Abouaoun said the IRC was preparing a response and was committed to working with local partners and the Libyan authorities to provide immediate assistance to those affected by the disaster.
“We urge the international community to step up and support the people of Libya in their time of need,” the statement said.
Conflict and a crumbling infrastructure have been hampering rescue operations. Libya is divided by two competing governments, complicating efforts to streamline rescue operations.
Some affected areas are now unreachable to aid organizations because of the serious damage to the region’s infrastructure. Only two of Derna’s seven access points are now open.
Experts blame the disaster on the global climate crisis that triggers storms, floods, droughts, famine and heat waves, among other disasters, but a protracted armed conflict is thought to have made the tragedy worse by making it difficult to maintain infrastructure such as roads, dams, and buildings.
“This tragedy underscores the urgent need for international attention and assistance as well as for climate action. The situation in Libya has been steadily deteriorating due to years of conflict and instability, compounded by the impacts of climate change,” said Ciaran Donnelly, the senior vice president for crisis response, recovery and development at the International Rescue Committee, in a press release.
Since the late Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown in 2011, Libya has not had a stable administration. Gadhafi gained control of the oil-rich nation in 1969 and held it for 40 years before being overthrown and assassinated in an uprising aided by Western military intervention.
Civil war broke out in the country in 2014 and resulted in two competing governments. A ceasefire was signed in 2020, but political tensions still persist.
Meanwhile, rescue workers have continued to search through rubble in a race against time to rescue survivors, but also to uncover and bury the dead.