More than two weeks have passed since devastating floods wreaked havoc in eastern Libya, following record levels of rainfall and the bursting of two dams. This disaster has led to thousands of casualties, with many still missing. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) now warns of the immense psychological toll the emergency is taking on those affected, particularly in the city of Derna, one of the areas hardest-hit.

With tens of thousands of people displaced, many have sought refuge in schools and other public buildings, while others have moved to various areas within Libya.

According to the UN, more than half of health facilities in affected areas are reported to be either partially-operational or completely non-functional. IRC’s medical teams on the ground report a shortage of medical personnel, supplies, medicines, and equipment as the full extent of the devastation becomes clear.

In the disaster-affected areas, there remain substantial challenges to access people in need due to extensive infrastructure damage, including damaged roads and collapsed bridges. Authorities and humanitarian workers continue to work tirelessly to reconnect the divided parts of Derna and restore vital health and water and sanitation services. 

Children, in particular, are bearing a significant burden as they face increased vulnerability to public health risks, such as acute watery diarrhea and other potential waterborne diseases. As well as the emotional trauma resulting from the loss of family members, and their sense of normalcy having lost their homes, schools and in some cases entire neighbourhoods. 

Majduldeen Alhlafi, IRC Libya Medical Team Leader, said,

“The devastation is immense; people have lost everything and are still in a state of shock. Many are grappling with severe mental distress. For instance, today we came across a seemingly healthy 12-year-old boy who was experiencing severe abdominal pain as a result of anxiety and distress. I have heard countless stories over the past week that illustrate the psychological impact of this emergency. It is affecting people of all backgrounds and ages. Put simply, the emotional trauma caused by this disaster is profound and so there is a need for significant investment in mental health services by the international community.”

Elie Abouaoan, IRC Libya Country Director, said,

“I have seen the terrible aftermath in eastern Libya where the damage to infrastructure in the affected areas and society at large is dreadful. With entire neighbourhoods swept from the ground, taking care of the mental well-being of those affected must go hand in hand with providing basic services. Children affected by this disaster are particularly at risk. The IRC knows from our experience of responding to crises across the globe that when children are exposed to extreme stress and deprivation during their early years they are more likely to experience delays in their development. As the response to this crisis moves towards longer-term recovery efforts, it is crucial that we ensure that children and their caregivers not only have access to basic services, but are also afforded with the nurturing care required to once again thrive.”

The IRC has scaled up its programmes to help those affected by this tragedy recover. We are now supporting four health facilities in Derna and Sousa, and providing critical care to at least 70 individuals in each 12-hour shift through our Mobile Medical Teams. We are also supporting the Ministry of Health to establish a Mental Health Care Unit and have deployed mental health staff to respond to urgent needs. Based on needs and shortage of medical personnel in the affected areas, the IRC has deployed mobile medical teams that consist of professionals who cover general practitioner medicine, orthopedics, general surgery, ear, nose and throat, urology, dermatology, and pediatrics. Since last week, the IRC’s mobile medical teams have been providing healthcare services to an average of 120 patients per day in Derna, reaching more than 800 people as of October 1. Alongside healthcare, we are also involved in protection efforts and partnering with organisations to distribute essential non-food items in affected areas.

The IRC urges the international community to ensure:

  1. Appropriate support to psychosocial programmes to mitigate the profound impact of the floods on the mental well-being of those affected.
  2. The restoration of impacted health facilities and access to medical services. This involves prioritising the repair and reconstruction of health facilities damaged by the floods.
  3. That young children and their caregivers have access to quality early childhood development, and 
  4. That school-aged children are able to resume their education and learning as quickly as possible, through the restoration of damaged schools and learning spaces, with affected communities empowered to support their children’s learning, development and wellbeing.