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Weaponising water in Libya despite coronavirus pandemic

April 30, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Libyan Army forces in Tripoli, Libya on 25 March 2020 [Amru Salahuddien /Anadolu Agency]

This month, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Libyan capital and most of western Libya spent at least 20 days without water. This was in addition to living through intensified fighting around Tripoli which only abated following the humiliating defeat of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar. His forces lost all major cities, west of the capital, that they had held for nearly a year.

Tripoli, like much of Libya, gets its water supplies from a man-made river that transports fresh water from the sparsely populated desert south to the north where two thirds of Libyans live. Dubbed the Great Manmade River (GMMR), one of the legacies of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, it provides water for drinking and other uses. Today the entire project is endangered as a result of misuse and war.

Its water is being weaponised in the conflict as never before. The whole country could soon face severe water shortages if no action is taken, and fast.

The latest cut in the water supply took place on 6 April and the man who did it, unashamedly, appeared on TV explaining his motives behind denying water to over two million people. Hassan Al-Gaddafi, the Haftar-appointed mayor of Al-Schwerf – east of Tripoli – claimed his brother went missing near Tripoli, where the Government of National Accord (GNA) is in control. He told astonished Libyans that unless his brother is freed, he will not reopen water pipelines.

READ: Is Haftar’s stubbornness behind his military setbacks? 

Two weeks later water was slowly dripping into parts of Tripoli only to be cut again for three days but this time for maintenance. It is not clear if Al-Gaddafi’s brother has been released. Al-Gaddafi (no relation to the late leader) did not answer my messages asking for comment.

On 21 April a group of civilians filed a lawsuit against the mayor accusing him of “crimes against humanity”. The prosecutor’s office followed by issuing an arrest warrant against him, however it is unlikely that he will be held accountable since he operates outside the GNA’s authority.

Over the last nine years of Libya’s civil war, water cuts have occurred on numerous occasions; sometimes used as a tool to settle local demands including outstanding payments, and others as a weapon in the war. This vital source is being used much the same way that oil facilities are.

Last January a group of armed tribal men, claiming loyalty to general Haftar, closed the main oil exporting terminals reducing the country’s exports by two thirds. Depriving Libya of an estimated $55 million daily. While Haftar denied any connection to the group, he did not intervene to end the closure.

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libya’s treasury depends largely on oil revenues which finance almost everything, including essential imports like food stuff and medicines. Experts warn if the closures continue, the GNA may not be able to pay the salaries of some two million people.

The vicious cycle of closures frequently involves power supplies, communication lines, internet access and other utilities. Blackouts are a daily occurrence for residents as power grids are targeted by criminals seeking to make a quick buck from the copper. As summer approaches, Libyans are bracing themselves for long, hot months without the availability of fans or air conditioning.

On 27 April General Haftar declared himself “ruler” of the parts of Libya he controls, leading to fears that the weaponisation of utilities will continue.

READ: How not to fail as UN envoy to Libya 

Forces loyal to the internationally backed GNA are also weaponising essential services. Communications, including internet access, cooking gas and fuel have been cut to cities considered loyal to LNA. Bani Walid and Tarhouna, for example, have been without mobile phone coverage, fuel and cooking gas for the last two months. Civilian mobile fuel tanks, delivering supplies from eastern Libya to the two cities have repeatedly been targeted by Turkish drones helping GNA.

While the country has no central government, essential services will continue to be weaponised by both sides of the conflict. Neither side is complying with the numerous UN resolutions criminalising the use of civilian utilities in war. The international body’s mission to the country, supposedly set up to help mediate the conflict, has been all but paralysed since its chief resigned in early March and a replacement has yet to be found. The warring sides are increasingly locked in bloody conflict that is fueled by foreign powers such as Turkey and Qatar helping GNA while Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and France who back the LNA.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.