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Libya’s water woes must be addressed

The country urgently needs a national strategy to strengthen water security

Libya water dinar Great Man-Made River Project Alamy via Reuters
A 20 Libyan dinars banknote issued in 2009 with a map of Libya showing the still uncompleted Great Man-Made River project

The quest for water security in Libya is becoming ever more urgent, as a huge national water project lies partially completed and neglected.

In common with its Middle Eastern neighbours, Libya has historically suffered a shortage of water and has relied on artesian supplies and shallow wells tapping local aquifers. 

In recent years water levels in local wells have fallen dramatically and the quality of water has deteriorated.

The country of seven million people has been riven by civil conflict since 2011 and is effectively still split between east and west.

To make matters worse, Libya has no permanent renewable surface water and receives scant and erratic rainfall. 

To reverse this progressive decline Libya built the first phases of the Great Man-Made River Project (GMMRP) in the 1990s. To this day the $25 billion project is among the world’s most ambitious irrigation initiatives. 

The GMMRP is designed to take advantage of four abundant aquifers in the south of Libya and to carry immense quantities of water to centres of population in the north. 

The project was originally designed in five phases to pipe out ancient Saharan waters to the country’s majority population, which is scattered along the Libyan coastal belt. 

GMMRP’s planned full operational capacity was to supply 6.5 million cubic metres per day from 1,350 production wells, via 600,000 pipes, covering a distance of 4,400km. However, this total capacity was never achieved. 

The first three phases and 75 percent of the fourth phase were implemented up until the 2011 Libyan revolution when long-serving ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown after 42 years in power.

The remaining GMMRP phases, planned to cover a huge area from Benghazi eastwards to the Egyptian border and some towns in the western Nafusa mountains, were never started.

In the interest of Libya’s water security the fifth phase of the GMMRP must be implemented in the near future. Today the project is the sole provider of more than 75 percent of domestic water needs.

The Saharan fossil aquifers are more than ample and could last for hundreds of years if they were just used to provide water for domestic and industrial use.

The Saharan fossil aquifers are more than ample and could last for hundreds of years

However, myriad issues have plagued this massive civil engineering project since the 2011 Libyan revolution, including a lack of maintenance, vandalism and underfunding.

In theory options such as desalination, pipelines from southern Europe, wastewater recycling and transportation by water tankers or water bags are alternative channels of supply.

But although Libya initiated a desalination industry in the early 1960s, the country now has just nine semi-functional plants, with designed capacity of around 500,000 cubic metres a day. 

The plants are currently managed by the General Desalination Company and can only provide less than 5 percent of Libya’s consumption of domestic water. Most of the installed capacity is old and insufficient. Many plants are out of operation. 

In the midst of this pressing liquid crisis Libya needs a national strategy to assess and evaluate water security requirements until 2050 – and sharpish.

Libya’s operational plan should include developing legislation, improving institutional and humanitarian capabilities, charging for water via revenue collecting systems, reducing water shortages through water demand management, and developing both conventional and non-conventional water resources. 

Strategic solutions to water scarcity normally lie outside the confines of water catchment and supply.

Managing and allocating water is a political process and so far those who are governing Libya have failed to grasp the true nature of the political economy of water and that water security lies beyond the water sector.

Water poverty does not determine poverty; poverty determines water poverty.

Salem Maiar is a consultant in Libyan natural resources, finances and geopolitics

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