After Libya flood, unexploded weapons pose new risk

Weaponry washed away in the recent flooding in Libya could exacerbate the already devastating crisis in the country.

An anti-Gaddafi fighter shows an anti-tank mine defused by the group in Brega September 11, 2011. Volunteers from anti-Gaddafi forces and army soldiers are still searching for mines and unexploded devices in and around Brega, laid by pro-Gaddafi forces during clashes in the last few months. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih (LIBYA - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY)
An anti-Gaddafi fighter shows an antitank mine defused by the group in Brega [File: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters]

Last week, Storm Daniel pounded Libya, wreaking havoc on the eastern city of Derna, where two neglected, ageing dams gave way upstream, unleashing an estimated 30 million cubic metres (8 billion gallons) of water, and obliterating entire neighbourhoods of the city, home to around 100,000 people.

But there could yet be a further deadly crisis, as humanitarian organisations issue a critical warning that the floods may have uncovered unexploded landmines and other weapons left behind from the country’s war.

Explosive history

Libya, a country of seven million people, has deep political fractures. It lacks a strong central government and has been embroiled in conflict on and off since a revolution toppled longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

After the 2011 uprising, the country’s massive arsenal was free for the taking, with dozens of bunkers nestled in residential neighbourhoods and other unsecured locations left completely unguarded. An anonymous source with knowledge of Libya’s weapons arsenal told Al Jazeera that two depots, in particular, were targeted by armed groups. One, known as Storage House 3 held plastic Semtex explosives, and the other, known as Storage House 5 held anti-aircraft missiles.

“Suddenly, all kinds of groups [in Libya] were on with military-grade weapons,” he said, which posed a major challenge to the country’s National Transitional Council (NTC) as it struggled to bring order post-2011.

Things got worse when the oil-rich country split between two rival governments in the east and the west in 2014, a UN-recognised administration in the capital, Tripoli, and one based in the now disaster-hit east, and a conflict began between the two.

In a report published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a drastic increase in the number of landmines and unexploded ordnance accidents (UXO) has been noted since post-war hostilities ceased in the second half of 2020.

As of 2022, there is an estimated 100,000 tonnes of ammunition under the rubble in some parts of Libya, including Sirte, Tawergha, Derna and Benghazi, areas that were all affected by conflict over the preceding decade, added the OCHA.

According to the Libyan Mine Action Centre (LibMAC), 162 mines and explosive remnants of War (ERW) accidents were reported across Libya from May 2020 to March 2022, resulting in a total of 329 casualties – 132 killed and 197 injured – of which 76 percent were civilians.

Finding explosives in conflict zones

Normally, records that hold information on the location of explosives are kept by governments and national authorities. However, as Libya remains administratively divided, the national repository is not fully equipped to store that information.

The head of the weapon contamination unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Erik Tollefson, told Al Jazeera that unexploded ordinance and ammunition stores that were left in the area, particularly in the old town of Derna, the hardest-hit area by the floods, have shifted locations after the two dams burst and flooded the area.

Using information gathered on the contamination sites pre-floods, and building a Geographical Information System (GIS) model to calculate the speed, height and width of the torrent in an attempt to map out suspected areas of weapon contamination – such information would assist the authorities in advising those involved in the search for bodies and clearing the rubble to avoid accidentally triggering unexploded ordnance.

“Now, we’ve shifted from a location where we knew where it was into new areas,” Tollefson said. “So it could be jammed into the mud, into the buildings, into wreckage and some, of course, swept into the sea.”

Current risks

As weapon contamination awareness is not widespread, even in conflict areas, a commonly-held belief is that unexploded ordinance moved by water becomes less dangerous.

That is not true, said Tollefson.

“It’s actually the opposite, they become very often more and more sensitive to movement, to touch, to someone striking it,” he explained, saying that “it is easier for it to detonate if it’s been handled afterwards”.

With the manipulation of the floods, some might be sensitive to the slightest touch, others are designed to explode upon impact with a hard surface, and many explosives will not detonate even if “hit by a hammer”.

In the tragic aftermath of the flooding, as survivors and rescuers are desperately searching for victims and pulling bodies from under the rubble and the sea, rescue and human rights organisations are worried that more casualties could be sustained – another catastrophe that Libya does not have the capacity to sustain.

How are risks being dealt with?

As the authorities in eastern Libya reel from the immeasurable challenges of the flood, especially amid the political turmoil that has washed over the country, organisations like the ICRC are trying to communicate their knowledge to stress the gravity of the unexploded weapons, provide necessary training and aid to groups involved in rescue missions, as well as raise awareness among the public.

“It’s our responsibility as humanitarians to make them aware of this risk that we know is clear and present,” said Tollefson. “The head of our delegation in Libya has been highlighting this as one of the additional risks to the community, to the survivors and to the rescuers that are in there.”

The Libyan Red Crescent has also said that it has partnered with government officials and assumed responsibility for spreading knowledge online to help minimise detonation risks and equip people with proper training should an untimely explosion occur.

Source: Al Jazeera