Colonel Qaddafi and the Great Man-made River

by |April 1, 2011

Pipe sections for the Great Man-made River Project, 1987, photo by Jaap Berk via WikiCommons

Judging from the past week’s news reports, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi‘s days as Libya’s dictator appear to be numbered. According to the New York Times, high ranking members of his government have been dropping like flies as rebel fighters continue attacking his regime’s forces. But behind the political impetus at work determining the fate of this Arab nation of 6.5 million people lurks another issue; water. Although Libya’s borders encompass a sizable land area — at roughly 1.8 million square kilometers, Libya is nearly two-and-a-half times the size of Texas (anyone who’s ever driven across Texas can attest to how big that is) — most of its population lives on a narrow strip of coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. Arable farmland comprises only 1 percent of the country’s area, and there is no renewable water supply to speak of.

The extent of irrigated cropland and industrial development in Libya could have been less, but from the time Qaddafi seized power in a bloodless coup d’etat in 1969, his government recognized the need for more fresh water with which to irrigate agriculture and supply cities and industry. Thus was born the Great Man-made River Project, one of the most massive groundwater pumping operations in history. The idea was hatched in the 1960s, and studied and planned in the 1970s. Work began in 1984, and 1991, the first drops of 40,000-year-old fossil water began flowing into coastal cities through a 4,000 km, mutlibillion dollar pipeline network from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, beneath the northern Sahara Desert.

Muammar Qaddafi, 2009, photo by Jesse Awalt, U.S. Navy

But, like the rule of Libya’s fashionista dictator, the country’s supply of groundwater won’t last forever. The Great Man-made River Project — which was only completed a few years ago — produces 6.5 million cubic meters of water per day, but the resource is not renewable. Analysts say that the $25 billion groundwater extraction system is ten times cheaper than desalination, but according to University of Victoria researcher Stephen Lonergan, the aquifer — the largest in the world — could be depleted as soon as 60 years from now (this estimate stands in stark contrast to the Libyan Government‘s claim that supplies will last for 4,625 years).

Eager to keep up with the demands of 20th Century industrialization, Libyan officials had been on the prowl for a relatively inexpensive source of water for decades. But it wasn’t until the 1950s, when oil reserves were discovered deep below the Sahara’s shimmering, scorching sands, that water was also found. Oil exploration engineers had stumbled upon the other ingredient key to a country’s security and material success. Oil made it possible to pay for the project and power the water’s extraction, and the economic boon helped fuel a population growth rate that hovered between 4 and 5 percent — the highest in the world — for the better part of the 1970s and 1980s.

Undoubtedly, workaday Libyans are in for a rough haul in the coming months and years. The country’s population growth rate has leveled off at two percent, but the U.S. State Department estimates that the standard of living for low and middle income Libyans has been on the decline since 1990 due to “waste, corruption, conventional armaments purchases, and attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction.” With its bureaucratic institutions shaken by civil war and its leaders clinging to power by a thread, Libya’s colossal water distribution system could face a shaky future.

“The main concerns with any non-renewable resource are the depletion rate and the dependency that is built up by using the resource,” Lonergan said in an e-mail to the Christian Science Monitor last August. Whatever the war’s outcome, let’s hope whoever ends up in the director’s chair is equipped to handle the responsibility of keeping the country’s taps and sprinklers running. Barring that, many people will likely become thirsty as Libya returns to its natural desert state.

Satellite image of Libyan irrigation, 2008, photo courtesy NASA

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4 thoughts on “Colonel Qaddafi and the Great Man-made River

  1. Lakis Polycarpou Lakis Polycarpou says:

    Interesting piece.

    One thing to consider — when Lonergan says that the aquifer will be depleted in 60 years, my question is “at what cost?” If I understand aquifer depletion, every year the water table drops it will take more energy (and money) to bring up the same amount of water. Thus, if (as the Monitor article says) it is already unprofitable to pump this water without government subsidy, what happens in 10 or 15 years?

    By this logic, while it might be theoretically possible to pump every last drop from the groundwater from the aquifer, there is no way from a financial or energy perspective that will happen. I wonder, then, if even 60 years is a far too optimistic projection for how long the aquifer will last?

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