By Kieran Cooke
Admin: This piece is extracted from a longer article by Mr. Kieran Cooke titled: “Trouble ahead for Gaddafi’s Great Man-Made River”.
The Man-Made River is a remarkable feat of engineering but the whole scheme could collapse if the mayhem in Libya continues
Libya’s water supplies under threat
By the time the uprising against Gaddafi started in early 2011, more than 70 percent of the work on the MMR was completed.
But with the chaos resulting from the ongoing civil war, the project and its web of infrastructure is under severe strain, threatening supplies of water to a majority of Libya’s 6.3 million people.
The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer
The idea behind the MMR – first mooted in the 1950s – was simple on paper, highly complex in reality.
Libya is one of the driest countries on earth, with more than 90 percent of its land desert. But deep under the sand in the south of the country is what’s known as the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System – the world’s largest aquifer – a vast fresh water lake covering an area of more than two million square kilometres.
Though many governments dismissed the project as one of Gaddafi’s flights of fancy, foreign companies – from the US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Turkey, Brazil and Canada – rushed to grab a slice of what was described at the time as the biggest engineering project in the world.
Since Gaddafi’s fall, there have been allegations of multi-million dollar bribes being paid to Libyan officials in exchange for participation in the scheme.
Phases of the MMR
Divided into five phases, the MMR involved sinking 1,300 wells, some up to 600 metres deep, down below the desert sands. Giant concrete pipes big enough for a bus to be driven through were sunk into trenches: altogether a water pipeline network covering 4,000kms was established.
Reservoirs were constructed. Numerous pumping stations were built. The first phase of the MMR, supplying water to Benghazi in the east of Libya and to Sirte was completed in 1991.
Other phases of the project, supplying water to Tripoli in the west and Tobruk in the far east of the country, gradually came on stream.
The MMR was funded almost entirely out of Libyan oil sales funds: though a substantial amount of equipment was imported – particularly from South Korea during the initial phases of the project – the hundreds of thousands of pipes needed for the scheme were all manufactured in Libya.
Destruction by NATO in 2011
In what was seen as a highly controversial move, NATO planes – acting to support rebel forces battling Gaddffi’s army – bombed and destroyed one of two of the MMR’s pipe-making facilities at Brega in July 2011.
NATO said it had evidence that the plant was being used by Gaddafi’s forces as a military storage facility and that rockets were being fired from the site.
MMR managers, loyal to Gaddafi, said the destruction of the factory and surrounding infrastructure was a war crime, threatening water supplies to millions of Libyans.
Later in 2011 UNICEF reported that power cuts and fuel shortages were putting the MMR at risk.
At the same time there were reports that a lack of spare parts and chemicals was endangering the workings of the MMR.
Amid the violence and political and economic chaos that is still enveloping Libya, it is very difficult to find reliable, up-to-date information on the workings of the MMR.
The long-term fate of the MMR
What is clear is that chronic power shortages in most areas of the country are seriously impeding the operation of water -pumping stations and wells.
More than 90 percent of people in Libya – the population has doubled since the early 1980s – live in cities and towns on the coast. Coastal aquifers have either been drained dry or are being tainted by seawater intrusion.
Old desalination plants are in need of repair. Plans to build news ones are on hold as the fighting continues.
Meanwhile power blackouts mean people in Libya’s two main cities – Tripoli and Benghazi – have to go without water for up to eight hours a day, sometimes longer.
Other parts of the country, including farming regions dependent on the MMR for irrigating crops, are similarly affected.
There are broader concerns about the long-term fate of the MMR. Though there is a vast amount of water under the desert, it is not being replenished.
The giant aquifer system in southern Libya crosses into the territory of Sudan, Egypt and Chad. Already there are reports of wells in Egypt running dry.
Gaddafi liked to claim that the MMR was “the eighth wonder of the world.” It is in many ways a remarkable feat of engineering but the whole scheme could collapse if the mayhem in Libya continues – resulting in a chronic water crisis affecting millions of people.
Kieran Cooke is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times, and continues to contribute to the BBC and a wide range of international newspapers and radio networks.