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From Morocco to Libya: How Natural Disasters Are Determining Instability in Africa

03 Nov 2023

From Morocco to Libya: How Natural Disasters Are Determining Instability in Africa

03 Nov 2023

Source: Fadel Senna/AFP, and Ahmed Elumami /Reuters 

North Africa has always been a strategically important region due to its location between three continents.[1] With vast oil reserves, important trade ports, and its favorable position overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the region has become the epicenter of some of the most important geopolitical dynamics of the last decades, from the migration crisis in Europe to the Islamist insurgency in the Sahel, all the way down to the recent unrest in West Africa.[2] The recent earthquakes and flooding have exacerbated an already precarious power balance, besides affecting the lives of millions of people, with entire cities devastated.[3] But these events have had a deeper impact beyond the humanitarian crisis, resulting in a change in the security dynamics of the region and affecting European foreign policy in Africa, which will likely lead to a drastic change in inter-regional dynamics. 

The main question that this paper addresses is how these earthquakes have affected security and geopolitics in North Africa, based on the regional security complex theory (RSCT) developed by the Copenhagen School of International Security Studies. This theory emphasizes that geopolitical dynamics at the regional level should be seen as interdependent and functioning like regional clusters driven mainly by geographic proximity. Security is viewed as a socially constructed concept shaped by the perceptions, interests, and interactions of actors in each region.[4] This is closely related to constructivism, which emphasizes the importance of social constructions and ideational factors in shaping the behavior and interactions of states and other actors in the international system.[5] The interactions among states in the regional security complex create an interdependence of security that occurs within a geographically coherent grouping. This paper will also make reference to a modified version of the regional security complex theory called the “securitization model”, which can help understand the complex web of connections between affected countries and how events affect those connections. Overall, this paper will highlight the significance of comprehending how abstract concepts affect security and how geographic proximity affects regional interactions.[6] 

To tackle the research question using this approach, the paper has been structured into four parts. The first part will analyze the natural disasters in Morocco and Libya and their role in exposing structural flaws linked to governance, and public policy. The second part examines how North Africa’s physical geography and position has determined its role as an echo chamber for the spillover effect, exploring its links with the surrounding regions. The third part analyzes the links between North Africa and its surroundings and how they determined the recent uprisings in West Africa and the migration crisis in Europe. The fourth part examines the effects of the earthquake in Morocco and the risks for European foreign policy in North Africa. 

Drawing upon the RSC Theory, this research developed a specific approach for this geographical area that analyzes and determines a pattern in the relationship between geography and security concerning the Sahara Desert, the Mediterranean, and their role in regional dynamics. 

The paper concludes that the absence of a holistic approach to security that considers multi-level dynamics, along with the lack of a standardized and unified European approach to cooperation, contributes to the structural weaknesses of North African governments. This, in turn, increases instability, hindering any initiative aimed at resolving the migration crisis and containing the recent burst of instability in West Africa and the Sahel. The recent earthquakes and flooding have revealed how this one-sided approach significantly contributes to the region’s instability and lack of preparedness for crises, amplifying regional dynamics such as the migration crisis and the Jihadist insurgency in the Sahel. 

The Twin Catastrophes: From Morocco’s Earthquake to Libya’s Flooding 

In September 2023, North Africa was struck by two major natural disasters, considered by some analysts to be some of the most devastating in recorded history.[7] Firstly, on 8 September 2023, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck at 11:11 PM west of the town of Oukaïmedene in western Morocco.[8] Its destructive force was reported to have claimed the lives of more than 2,900 people and injured another 5,500. The earthquake heavily damaged parts of the ancient section of Marrakech and devastated several remote settlements in the Atlas Mountains. Its tremors were felt as far away as Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca, and in Portugal and Algeria.[9] The Moroccan government immediately dispatched ambulances, rescue teams, and military personnel to the area to support emergency response operations. Alongside the central government, many humanitarian organizations rushed to aid the affected population, including the World Central Kitchen, Doctors Without Borders, GlobalGiving. Additionally, other countries such as Spain, Qatar, the UK, and the United Arab Emirates offered their assistance.[10] But according to humanitarian organizations, the government has not issued a widespread plea for aid and has only accepted restricted foreign assistance.[11] Although aid swiftly arrived in the main urban centers like Marrakech, emergency response efforts faced difficulties reaching many isolated villages located in the rugged Atlas Mountain range. Many urban centers and villages have experienced a partial or complete lack of humanitarian aid, which has caused distress among some survivors who lack basic humanitarian support, along with a sense of abandonment.[12] According to analysts, the main reason for the slow response to the earthquake in Morocco is the centralized decision-making structure.[13] A dynamic that has been previously explored in a previous paper on the Turkish-Syrian earthquake, and which once again appears to be a common denominator in the slowness and inefficiency of emergency response is a primary structural weakness that needs to be addressed, since this directly affects perceived security and, therefore, stability.[14]

Source: ERCC – Emergency Response Coordination Centre / European Commission

More than 850 miles to the east, on the night of 10 September 2023, after Storm Daniel, the deadliest Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone in recorded history, reached the coasts of Libya. With winds exceeding 70 mph and heavy rainfall of over 150 mm, it appeared to have caused the Mansur dam, located at the convergence of two river valleys, to collapse.[15] The released waters rushed seven miles towards the sea and overwhelmed the Derna dam, which was also under stress from rising water levels in its reservoir.[16] This led to a devastating and deadly torrent that swept through Derna. Entire neighborhoods were believed to have been washed away, and the city was declared a disaster zone. This led to the deaths of over 11,300 people.[17] Some reports suggested that the death toll could rise to over 5,000. The flooding displaced over 43,000 people, making it the worst disaster of 2023.[18] 

However, various reports suggest that the catastrophe didn’t solely result from the forces of nature but also due to the lack of maintenance of the dam and negligence, which is suspected to have started as early as 2012. In 2007, Arsel Construction Company was contracted by Muammar Gaddafi, the then ruler of Libya, to carry out maintenance on two dams and construct a third one. The company’s website claimed that the work began in 2007 and was scheduled to be completed in 2012. Nevertheless, the project was prematurely terminated because the company failed to provide the contracted budgets for the project, according to Abdul Hamid al-Dbaiba, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based Libyan government that competes with the administration in Libya’s east, where Derna is located.[19] The company left Libya in 2011 during the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi, and neither dam was ever repaired, according to a government assessment dated 2012.[20] As a result, neither of the existing dams received the necessary repairs, and the promised third dam was never built.[21] 

Despite the almost decade-long political unrest and the humanitarian crisis caused by the storm, Libya’s vital oil industry has remained surprisingly steady, providing the local government with the necessary revenue to keep operating and maintain sovereignty. As demonstrated by the recent announcement from the National Oil Corporation (NOC), owned by the government in Benghazi, it plans to launch an oil and gas licensing round in 2024. This initiative is expected to support the national goal of producing over 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil within the next three years. However, this resilience is being tested as the country grapples with the aftermath of this historic storm.[22] The catastrophe fostered an uncommon sense of solidarity, prompting government agencies nationwide to swiftly mobilize to assist the afflicted regions. Although the eastern Libyan government based in Tobruk spearheaded the relief initiatives, the western government situated in Tripoli allocated approximately US$412 million for reconstruction efforts in Derna and other eastern towns. Additionally, an armed group in Tripoli dispatched a humanitarian aid convoy to contribute to the relief efforts.[23] From this, it is possible to see how Storm Daniel has indeed played an inevitable role in the humanitarian disaster in Derna, but it was just one of the main factors, once again demonstrating the intricate connection between security, structural weaknesses, and natural disasters. 

The Geographical Paradox: North Africa as a superconductor

The region of North Africa has historically served as a crossroads and a boundary between civilizations. The Trans-Saharan Trade Routes played a significant role in the spread of Islam throughout many regions of sub-Saharan Africa. These trade routes connected West Africa to the Islamic world, particularly the Middle East, and facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, and technologies between these regions. The spread of Islam in ancient Africa was largely peaceful and gradual, occurring through merchants, traders, scholars, and missionaries. African rulers either accepted the religion or converted to it themselves. In this manner, Islam spread across and around the Sahara Desert. Conversely, North Africa was perceived by various European powers as marking the “end of the Mediterranean Corridor”. The Roman Empire considered North Africa as a boundary between their empire and the rest of the world. This perception was also shared by other European powers, such as the Spanish Empire and Portuguese Empire later.

This perception is intricately linked to the physical geography of the region. In the north, the Mediterranean, as an open body of water, serves as a direct link to Europe. The apparent lack of physical barriers and the relative ease with which a boat can navigate through it have determined its role as an accelerator of dynamics. This is especially evident when we consider historically the role of the Mediterranean as central to commerce and trade in the region, linking different ports, cities, and empires. Nowadays, those same routes are also used by human traffickers who take advantage of the proximity to the European coastline to continue organizing trips for migrants towards Europe.[24]