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Libya has a water problem despite its abundance of ‘black gold’

March 16, 2023 at 8:15 am

Great Man-Made River monument, Tripoli, Libya, late 20th century [Vivienne Sharp/Heritage Images/Getty Images]

Libya is one of the driest countries in the Middle East-North Africa region, which is itself home to eleven of the fifteen driest countries in the world. The average annual rainfall in Libya is less than 26mm, with rain mainly in the winter months, and occasionally in early spring, around this time of year. When it does rain, it tends to be in short downpours. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) believes that about four million Libyans, half of them children, will face serious water problems unless the issue is tackled soon.

According to data from the World Resources Institute (WRI), Libya is projected to be among the top fifteen countries that will have severe water stress by 2040. Water stress is measured by comparing the withdrawal of water against the available renewal quantities of surface and underground water. Water withdrawal includes domestic use, agricultural, industrial and livestock consumption, as well as waste. According to the WRI, the country has a serious fresh water deficit for drinking, agriculture and other economic activities.

Since Libya has no natural rivers and rainfall is hardly retained at all on any large scale, it is indeed facing a serious water problem. Something has to be done.

There are many reasons for the problem, some of which are beyond human control, such as the dry climate, the lack of rain and harsh desert conditions making evaporation a major issue. However, things like climate change, water mismanagement, urbanisation and a lack of long-term investment in recycling technology, for example, can be tackled by governments and people alike. Solutions exist, but they require strong political will and better policies.

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Libya actually has large underground aquifers in the desert, which were discovered when oil companies were looking for water sources in the 1960s. Unfortunately, most of these water reserves are hundreds of kilometres away from the large population centres. Some 70 per cent of the seven million Libyans live in and around the northern coastline, with relatively few scattered in the isolated oases across the vast desert that covers nearly 95 per cent of the country.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of the fresh water needs were met using desalination plants on the coast. Libya has nearly 2,000 km of coast on the Southern Mediterranean. As the population grew, though, and its water needs also grew, expensive desalination became increasingly unsustainable. Libya today is about 97 per cent dependent on the aquifers.

These aquifers are part of the largest underground water reserves in the world. Beneath Libyan territory lies the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, the world’s largest known aquifer covering two million square kilometres beneath Libya, Chad, Sudan and Egypt. Just over a third lies beneath Libya. It is estimated that the water could last for over 100 years, if exploited efficiently, despite the fact that most of is not renewable.

With its abundance of “black gold” — oil — Libya was able to establish in 1983 the Great Man-Made River (GMMR) authority to build a canal to take water from the deep aquifers to the population centres in the north and north east, and then manage the project after its completion. Initially, 70 per cent of the water was intended for irrigation purposes.

In August 1984, the then leader Muammar Gaddafi laid the foundation stone of the project at the Sarir basin, one of several underground water reservoirs found in at least three locations: Kufra in the south east; Sirte in the centre; and Murzq basin in the south west. The largest of these reservoirs are Al-Sarir and Murzuq.

A portrait of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, portraying him as a construction worker, is displayed at the pipe-manufacturing plant for the Great Man-Made River project March 2000 in Brega, Libya [Reza/Getty Images]

A portrait of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, portraying him as a construction worker, is displayed at the pipe-manufacturing plant for the Great Man-Made River project March 2000 in Brega, Libya [Reza/Getty Images]

Four months after surviving the US bombing of his home on 15 April 1986, Gaddafi inaugurated the Brega Plant to produce the huge pipes needed for the GMMR. Each pipe is four metres in diameter and made of pre-stressed concrete with a very long life expectancy.

At the time, Libya was under sanctions and boycotts led and reinforced mainly by the US at the height of bad relations between the two countries. Not a penny was borrowed from abroad to finance the construction of the GMMR, estimated at $33 billion. Instead, Libya used its national funding policies even when oil, its main source of revenue, dropped to as little as $10 per barrel in the 1980s.

The US didn’t give up in its attempts to derail the project. When work started on phase II of the GMMR to take water to Tripoli in 1992, the US accused Libya falsely of building unground bunkers for chemical weapon production.

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Today, the GMMR is threatened by political instability, negligence, illegal connections drawing water from the pipelines and badly maintained water networks within cities. The NATO bombing of Libya in support of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion in 2011 damaged the Brega pipe-making plantt, killing six of the facility’s security guards. Some of the open reservoirs holding water to be pumped into cities are going dry, while not enough money is made available to maintain the overall network.

Currently, the GMMR delivers around 2.5 million cubic metres of water every day, but when power shortages persist during military clashes among the different factions, that figure falls dramatically, and cities like Tripoli suffer from a lack of fresh water.

To avoid water shortages and gain the maximum benefit of its “black gold” investments, Libya needs leaders who have the political will and determination to take the nation back to the level that was seen when the GMMR was first mooted all those years ago. The solution to the water issue is there, under our feet. We need to protect and develop it properly.

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