The death toll from the unprecedented flooding in northeastern Libya has risen to at least 11,300 people, the U.N. has said, with another 10,100 missing in the devastated city of Derna alone.
Meanwhile, rescuers, armed with diggers, on Sunday clawed through debris to find survivors under the rubble of leveled buildings in Derna, with the previously asphalt roads awash with wreckage. Bodies are regularly being found amid mangled cars, uprooted palm trees and bits of buildings at the Derna seafront.
Residents and aid groups gathered the bodies of those who were washed out to sea when historic rainfall caused two dams to burst and sent millions of cubic meters of floodwater through the centre of the city.
“These figures are expected to rise as search-and-rescue crews work tirelessly to find survivors,” the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said of the death toll as of 5.p.m. Saturday (11 a.m. ET).
The World Health Organization said 32 tons of health aid -- enough to reach almost 250,000 people -- also arrived in the country on Saturday, which included essential medicines, trauma and emergency supplies, and medical equipment.
“This is a disaster of epic proportions,” Dr. Ahmed Zouiten, a WHO Representative in Libya, said in a statement.
The aid package also includes body bags for safe and dignified burials of the deceased amid fears of the authorities rushing to bury people in mass graves.
“The bodies of people who have died following wounds sustained in a natural disaster or armed conflict almost never pose a health danger to communities,” the agency said in a separate statement earlier this week, urging for properly documented burials and cremations.
Health alarms were not limited to the dead bodies.
“The National Center for Disease Control has already detected at least 55 children poisoned as a result of drinking polluted water in Derna,” the OCHA said.
Nearly 300,000 children were at a soaring risk of diarrhea, cholera, dehydration and malnutrition, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with nearly every critical infrastructure being wiped out in the affected areas.
“Children are among the most vulnerable and are at high risk of disease outbreaks, lack of safe drinking water, malnutrition, disruption in learning, and violence,” the agency said earlier this week in a statement.
Entire neighborhoods were swept away last week when Storm Daniel caused two dams to collapse, unleashing on what was a struggling coastal city of 90,000 caught in years of political turmoil
Experts have said the disaster, brought on due to the deadly mix of torrential rains and poor management of the dams, or its complete lack of, could have been prevented.
A hydrologist had began researching the same dams protecting the port city about 17 years ago and the threat the residents faced was well known, he said.
“When I gathered the data, I found a number of problems in the Derna valley: in the cracks present in the dams, the amount of rainfall and repeated floods,” Abdul Wanis Ashour told Reuters.
“I found also a number of reports warning of a disaster taking place in the Derna valley basin if the dams were not maintained,” he added.
The results of his study which were published in an academic paper last year “demonstrated that the study area has a high potential for flood risk,” calling for immediate steps to enforce regular maintenance and precautionary measures for the residents living in the area.
“Therefore, dams of Wadi Derna basin is needed periodic maintenance,” he wrote in the paper.
His worst fear came true last week.
According to state media, the flooding destroyed at least 891 buildings in Derna.
The collapse of the two dams, which were built in the 1970s, will be investigated along with the local officials and previous governments, Libya’s general prosecutor said in a news conference late Friday.
“There were warnings before that. The state knew of this well, whether through experts in the Public Water Commission or the foreign companies that came to assess the dam,” Ashour said.
“The Libyan government knew what was going on in the Derna River Valley and the danger of the situation for a very long time.”