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Q&A: Peter Schwartzstein on Conflict & Climate in Libya

Storm Daniel impacted Libya severely. Thousands died, over 43,000 displaced. In a Q&A, Wilson Center's Peter Schwartzstein links the devastation to not only rain but also poor governance and ten years of conflict.

In the wake of Storm Daniel, which hit Libya in September 2023, ECSP spoke with Wilson Center Global Fellow Peter Schwartzstein about the storm’s tragic fallout and its connection to the conflict. As an environmental journalist and consultant, Schwartzstein has written extensively about the climate-conflict nexus and other environmental and geopolitical issues, primarily in the Middle East and North and East Africa.

ECSP: Storm Daniel swept through the Mediterranean, hitting Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece. But it brought exceptional devastation to Libya: The extreme rainfall and accompanying floods killed thousands of people in the country’s eastern region alone and displaced at least 43,000 more. To understand what happened in Libya, we have to understand that this is not purely an environmental disaster. There also are governance dimensions, including the country’s history of conflict. How do you see the interplay of these factors?

Schwartzstein: What we’re seeing in Libya—and particularly in Derna, the city that has been hardest hit—is almost a perfect illustration of what happens when extreme climate stressors meet unbelievably poor levels of governance. Storm Daniel—a nasty, strong, tropical storm—swept into a part of Libya that had been hobbled by roughly a decade of conflict. This region was also hit extra hard by the regime of Gaddafi, which had a particular suspicion of those who lived in the far East of the country. Even under Libya’s current administration, it has been neglected in part because of its reputation as a hub of dissent and, in the government’s view, unruly inhabitants.

Derna also had two particular dams that had seemingly not had any real maintenance, at least not over the course of the last 20 years. And consequently, when exposed to an enormous amount of rainfall falling within a condensed period, they collapsed like a house of cards.

Now, of course, there’s more to it than that. Libya has lacked strong degrees of both law and order since 2011—and, in many ways, for decades beforehand under its dictatorial regime. You’ve had prolific levels of deforestation in the Jebel Akhdar in the mountain range that lies behind the city of Derna. And so, at a time when you need every bit of vegetation at hand, there was just less greenery than ever to suck up torrent water, and less greenery than ever to soften the weight that then fell upon those two shabbily maintained dams. And that’s how you ended up with the situation that has left anywhere between 10 to 20 thousand (or possibly more) people dead in one small city alone.

ECSP: There are reports of greater cooperation between Libya’s rival administrations to deliver aid after the disaster. In the environmental peacebuilding space, we talk about equitable natural resource management as a potential avenue for cooperation in places that have historically suffered from intractable conflict—and I think the same could be said of disaster response. Is that dynamic playing out here?

Schwartzstein: Definitely. As we saw with the horrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February of this year, disasters can have a kind of a thin silver lining—an opportunity for both different nation-states, and, in this instance, different actors within the same nation-state to come together at times of crisis. At the time of the Turkish/Syrian earthquake, tensions between Greece and Turkey were particularly high. That disaster provided yet another opportunity for what people in the Eastern Mediterranean have referred to as “earthquake diplomacy.”

The moment following this near evisceration of the city of Derna seems to have levied such a shock across the entirety of Libya that (for the time being, at least) there has been a degree of coordination between the two authorities or self-declared governments in Libya that we haven’t seen for a decade, since the collapse of the Qaddafi regime.

Whether that will last remains to be seen, and I would bow to experts on Libyan domestic politics. But you have a degree of coordination between rival checkpoints that… has not been a fixture of the past decade. You have planes securing permission to cross airspace. And you have what sounds like absolutely tremendous intercommunal solidarity…. Libya’s an enormous place, and you have people driving 24 hours or more from the far west of the country towards Derna, which is in the far east, to help with disaster relief efforts and to deliver various forms of assistance. It seems like there’s a tremendous amount of goodwill. Can that surmount the degree of mutual distrust and the vested interests that underlie the two different authorities in Libya? From what I read, there’s a degree of cynicism and jadedness among the expert class, who seriously doubt that this moment of extreme goodwill will last.

A lot of what happened [in Derna and elsewhere] is indeed a consequence of the lack of a unitary state, or the lack of a strong, stable government that’s capable of assisting people. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has come out and said that one of the reasons why this disaster seemingly took the residents of Derna by surprise… was the lack of effective statewide forecasting. You just didn’t have a governmental authority that was well placed, or even able to deliver the kinds of quality meteorological advice that, in that dangerous situation, people so desperately need.

So we can hold out with that degree of optimism and hope. But in a profoundly undemocratic environment like that of both Eastern and Western Libya, it’s not necessarily up to citizens themselves as to whether they can harness this moment and use it as a bridge or an entry point to overcome a lot of the wider problems that the country has experienced for decades.

ECSP: ‘Climate security’ is a concept that frames the two phenomena as intimately linked concerns that must be addressed in tandem. What is the path forward in Libya? What does it look like for Libya to address its history of conflict and instability and its climate vulnerability together?

Schwartzstein:  In the case of Libya, one potential cause for optimism is also one of the things that makes me despair. Libya is a very significant oil producer. It’s a country that theoretically has a lot of cash on hand. It’s also got a relatively small population, which means that were fossil fuel largesse used in an equitable fashion, there would be (again, theoretically) more than enough to go around for both the national government and local governments and individual families to help adapt and partially mitigate the more intense and more frequent climate shocks coming their way.

But, again, as we see with countries like Iraq that are seemingly in similar-ish positions, none of that wealth or none of that capability counts for much when it runs up against deeply corrupt and deeply inefficient or incompetent management. So you have disaster relief (both from sources within Libya and internationally) that’s beginning to dribble into the Derna area. But it already seems as if some of that has been frittered away and stolen and delivered to those who are—I wouldn’t say “not in need,” but less in need than those in the absolute eye of the storm.

When we talk about climate security, it can get quite boring. The extent to which we just talk about the vitality and necessity of good governance in these situations becomes this vicious cycle. You need good governance in order to temper the shocks that climate change inflicts on a society, but, at the same time, climate change reduces a government’s capacity to be effective in these kinds of scenarios. We saw this with the floods in Pakistan, around this time last year. In that instance, the Pakistani state’s ability to deliver the aid and assistance that tens of millions of people needed so desperately was compromised by the fact that much of the infrastructure required to perform those duties had been washed away.

This interview was originally published in the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program of the Wilson Center, the New Security Beat.

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