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Agencies Issue Guidance as Libyan Residents Fear Flooding Health Risks


A man looks at a dead body, after a powerful storm and heavy rainfall hit Libya, in Derna, Libya Sept. 12, 2023.

As rescue efforts continue in Libya, international health agencies issued a statement Friday on the rush to bury bodies because of fears of a health crisis in the aftermath of Sunday’s catastrophic flooding.

The World Health Organization, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross warned against the misconceptions about health risks that dead bodies pose.

“Amid devastating loss of life due to disasters and conflict, there is often unfounded fear and misunderstanding concerning the dead,” the health organizations said in a statement. “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 groups said they have teams in Libya to help local authorities with guidance, materials and training in burying the dead.

Local officials warned about a possible “environmental crisis” posed by unrecovered bodies — beneath debris or in the water — which has led to mass burials as some residents believe the dead bodies can spread diseases and contaminate drinking water.

Libya’s Ministry of Local Governance announced in a Facebook post that its sanitation agency would deploy a convoy equipped with sterilization and fumigation equipment, pesticides and spraying apparatus to the affected eastern regions.

“The belief that dead bodies will cause epidemics is not supported by evidence,” the statement said, adding that the group recognizes “the presence of dead bodies can be stressful, resulting in a push for mass burials.”

Abdullah Zafeer, a lecturer at Omar Al-Mokhtar University and an eyewitness in the northeastern port city of Susa, told VOA that as decomposing bodies begin to emerge, “the smell of death is surrounding the city.”

“There are still people trapped under the rubble and the destroyed houses, buried under mud and stones,” he said.

Like other residents, Zafeer said he feared health risks as rescue operations in Susa have been delayed because of road destruction.

Susa, more than 259 kilometers (161 miles) east of Benghazi, has faced instability due to the civil war, affecting its population and infrastructure.

Zafeer said aid convoys reached the city Wednesday, adding to efforts by the Libyan National Army, which began Sunday.

Hamdi Al-Hassi, director of Emergency and Ambulance Services in Susa, told local media that “the situation in Susa is extremely difficult, and there are several areas we have not reached yet.”

Hardest-hit areas

The storm hit other areas in eastern Libya, including the towns of Al-Bayda, Al-Marj and Shahat. At least 46 people were reported dead in Al-Bayda, Abdel-Rahim Mazek, head of the town’s main medical center, said earlier in the week. Figures from less affected areas remained unconfirmed as rescue efforts continued.

Intensive rescue and relief efforts were underway in the port city of Derna, where nearly a quarter of the city's residents were missing and buildings destroyed, according to emergency officials.

Satellite data released on X, formerly Twitter, by Disaster Charter, a nongovernmental organization specializing in disaster management, showed more than 2,200 buildings exposed to rushing floodwaters, highlighting the extent of flooding in Derna.

Marie el-Drese, the Libyan Red Crescent’s secretary-general, told The Associated Press by phone that more than 10,000 people were reported missing in the city. Health authorities previously put the death toll in Derna at 5,500. The storm also killed about 170 people elsewhere in the country.

Othman Abduljaleel, eastern Libya’s health minister, said more than 3,000 bodies had been buried by Thursday morning, while another 2,000 were still being processed. He said most of the dead were buried in mass graves outside Derna, while others were transferred to nearby towns and cities.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it had provided 6,000 body bags to local authorities, as well as medical, food and other supplies distributed to hard-hit communities.

Several countries, including neighboring Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, have sent aid and rescue teams. Italy dispatched a naval vessel on Thursday carrying humanitarian aid and two navy helicopters to be used for search-and-rescue operations.

President Joe Biden said the United States would provide financial support to relief organizations and collaborate with Libyan authorities and the United Nations to offer further assistance.

The U.N. has launched an appeal for more than $71 million to respond to the “most urgent needs of 250,000 people targeted out of the 884,000 people estimated to be in need.”

This story originated in VOA’s English to Africa Service. Some information came from The Associated Press.