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Libya Floods

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 14 September.

“The situation is very concerning, and I send sincere condolences on behalf of the Government to the people of Libya. I am sure that is true for everyone in the House. On Wednesday, eastern administration officials reported that the death toll had risen to at least 5,300, and newspaper reports this morning suggest the number could reach 20,000.

Storm Daniel hit Libya on Sunday 10 September after causing floods and chaos in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, and then, early on Monday morning, two dams burst, which we know caused major flooding that submerged parts of the city and wiped out entire neighbourhoods. The attempt to recover the situation has been made worse by a lack of road access and by communication channels being down. We stand ready to help as best we can.

The UK has committed to supporting Libya following these devastating floods, and yesterday the Foreign Secretary announced an initial package worth up to £1 million to provide life-saving assistance to meet the immediate needs of those most affected by the floods. The UN Central Emergency Response Fund, to which the UK is the third largest donor, has announced that it will deliver $10 million of support to Libya. We are also working with trusted partners on the ground to identify the most urgent basic needs, including shelter, healthcare and sanitation. We stand ready to provide further support.

The UK remains in close contact with authorities across Libya to help respond to this tragic crisis, and Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, has reiterated the UK’s commitment to Libya in a call with the chair of Libya’s Presidential Council. UN officials have said that the western and eastern Governments are working together and communicating on this, which will be important, and we stand ready to help the people of Libya in these very challenging times.”

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister has been focused on the huge disaster in Libya, and of course the situation is incredibly complex. Last Thursday, David Rutley said that

“the UN is … finalising its needs assessment”,—[Official Report, Commons, 14/9/23; col. 1002.]

and that the UK stood ready to assist in is response. I take it that that assessment has now been received, so can the Minister update us on what the UK’s support will be for the disaster response team and whether this includes technical and expert advice and support? Finally, I know the Minister is on his way to UNGA at some point. Can he reassure the House that the UK will be mobilising global support for the disaster relief efforts in Libya?

My Lords, I am sure I speak for all of us in your Lordships’ House as I extend the condolences of the Government and the whole House to the people of Libya and, if I may, to the people of Morocco. Two absolutely shocking events have taken place and the human suffering has been immense.

I assure the noble Lord that we have been very much seized of the situation. Two days ago, I spoke directly to the OCHA co-ordinator, Martin Griffiths, to understand fully the work of the UN. We are routing our support through the UN agencies on the ground because of the complexity of the situation. Over the weekend, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary immediately announced £1 million of funding to provide life-saving assistance, based on a needs assessment. I announced a further package of £10 million to bolster UK support in the region to cover the situation in Libya, as well as in Morocco. I can report to the House that the first flight carrying UK-funded support landed in Benghazi on the morning of Monday 18 September, including shelter items, portable solar lanterns and, importantly, water filters.

My Lords, I associate myself with the sympathies from the Minister to the people of Morocco and Libya. Regarding the UK response, the Government depleted the humanitarian relief fund to less than 10% of its previous levels—has that now been fully replenished, to ensure that we can respond to natural disasters such as these going forward? On the specific response to Libya, the Minister will be aware that there have been reports of warnings which could have potentially saved thousands of lives. Which institutions within Libya do the British Government trust to ensure that any reconstruction and humanitarian relief work will be done in a corrupt-free way, to ensure that people do not have their suffering prolonged?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord would acknowledge that the response to the crisis in Morocco and in Libya has ensured that we have stood up funding based on the needs assessment and in line with the conversations we have had through UN agencies and, importantly, with the Libyan Administration. I spoke to the head of the Presidential Council, Mohamed al-Menfi, and extended the condolences of the United Kingdom. His Majesty the King has also sent a note. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Prime Minister Dabaiba in this regard. I am also looking to meet the appropriate Libyan Minister on the ground in New York when I depart for the UN later today.

We have ensured immediate, life-saving funding. As the noble Lord recognises, the situation in Libya is extremely complex. There are two warring sides. I have spoken directly to our chargé on the ground in Libya to ensure there is good co-ordination with all sides. We are hearing some reports, in this desperate situation, of good co-ordination, but so much more needs to be done. The main issues are of access and logistics. On the eastern side of the country, from Benghazi, aid to all the affected areas has been hindered by people who are stopping it being delivered. They are hindering the important humanitarian work as well.

My Lords, the Minister referenced the role of the United Nations. He will have seen reports that UNICEF says that some 300,000 children have been affected and that the number is rising. Is he able to give the House any more information about this? He will have also seen that UNICEF has launched its own appeal. Can he tell us whether the disasters appeal in the United Kingdom is concentrating on both Libya and Morocco? Is he confident that the aid needed in Morocco is now reaching its desired intentions and purposes at first hand? As the Minister knows, there were complaints about how slowly it was being taken up.

On the noble Lord’s latter point, on the Saturday evening and overnight into Sunday I engaged directly with the Moroccan Foreign Minister to ensure we knew exactly what was required. I pay tribute to our emergency response teams, which mobilised overnight to ensure that the required assistance went out on two RAF planes. I am grateful to my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence for their strong co-operation. Those planes landed and the aid got through to the key parts of Marrakesh, which many noble Lords will know well, and the Atlas Mountains. We are also working with key agencies on the ground. I know that the Moroccan ambassador has embraced the NGOs which stand ready to assist, and which are working with local partners.

The UN has launched a flash fund for Libya. There are several UN agencies on the ground such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, as the noble Lord said, and the World Food Programme has begun delivering food assistance. It is very difficult, particularly in Derna, which has been totally and utterly devastated. Once the assessments that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned are made and materialise, we will be able to stand up further support according to need.

My Lords, Libya is an oil-rich country. Surely the problem is not just one of money but of governance and neglect of the infrastructure over a long period. Is there any prospect that this tragedy might bring together the two warring factions in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica? Can the international community bring pressure on both sides and their sponsors at least to recognise the problem and try to reconcile it?

I totally agree with the noble Lord and his premise that Libya is economically very rich. Since the disputes broke out, which continue to plague the country, there has been corruption and a lack of co-ordination and administration. Some reports suggest that that led to the collapse of the infrastructure—particularly the two dams which directly impacted and devastated Derna. I can assure the noble Lord that we are working with the UN. Prior to this crisis, I had engaged with SRSG Bathily on reconciliation and bringing the two sides together. I hope to meet him again when I am in New York later today and during the next two days.

My Lords, the apocalyptic floods in Libya are now estimated to have killed 11,000 people, with 10,000 still missing. Their intensity and impact have been aggravated by global warming. Since 2020, the UK’s aid budget has fallen from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI. I implore the Minister to think again, particularly as the original aid budget was set before the world had to respond to regular climate disasters.

We have talked many a time about the need for aid, and the Government are committed to returning to 0.7% at the appropriate time. I am sure the noble Earl would acknowledge that the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of support in both Libya and Morocco, and we continue to engage in this respect. I am sure the noble Earl has been following media and other reports and will know that this is not just about climate. There are some serious issues around accountability, particularly about the maintenance of the dam. We are awaiting a full assessment in that regard. There is an acute responsibility on the part of those who administer this part of Libya.

Does my noble friend agree that these two things coming together is a terrible warning for the rest of the world? The mixture of climate change and inadequate protection, as well as inadequate dealing with the maintenance of infrastructure, ought to be a clarion call throughout the world, including in this country. Would he undertake to make sure that our adaptation report, which the Climate Change Committee said was entirely inadequate, can be looked at again?

My Lords, I shall take my noble friend’s suggestion, because I know that he makes it in a very constructive way. Certainly, I think that we need to. The discussions that have taken place in the UN over the past couple of days have been focused very much on climate and the environment. I am delighted that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has been directly involved with this matter. It is important to note that we are only half way towards the fulfilment—or lack of fulfilment—of the SDGs. The performance is very low, and we need a concerted effort to ensure that the SDGs get back on track. I am sure that the report to which the noble Lord referred serves as an important contributor in this respect.

My Lords, I declare an interest, as I have had a lot to do with setting up medical schools in Libya. I would be very interested to know whether the Minister has any information on the original construction of the two dams.

My Lords, I can share with my noble friend that the dams were actually constructed by Yugoslavia, which in itself reflects how dated they are. Of course, any infrastructure that was built requires regular maintenance. The early reports that have come out, particularly with the complex situation in the eastern part of Libya, suggest that those dams had not been sustained in the way that was required. There are lots of reports of early warning signals and cracks in the dams, and we will assess those. What is required now is a concerted effort on the ground, and for the two sides in Libya to come together in the interests of the Libyan people.