Malak Altaeb

This article discusses the defining characteristics and legacies of hydro-politics under Qaddhafi, presents some of the new issues that have emerged since regime change in 2011, and offers some ways forward for water policy in Libya.


Libya is one of the driest countries in the world. The Man-Made River Project, touted by Qaddhafi as a solution to take advantage of Libya’s plentiful natural resources, serves as a case study in social and institutional engineering.

Libya today is the 20th most water-stressed country in the world.

Its freshwater resources originate primarily from four aquifers – Kufra, Sirt, Morzuk, and Hamada – the last three of which, located within the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, are close to depletion.

These aquifers are part of the network of the Man-Made River Project that provides over 90% of Libya’s water, and which Qaddhafi anointed the “eighth wonder of the world (!!!)” and heralded as the ultimate solution for Libya’s water needs.

With Qaddhafi gone, Libyans have been trying to separate the truths from the fictions of the Man-Made River Project and the nature and extent of the water crisis.

What we find is that Libya’s water crisis, like water crises around the world, is not one of scarcity but of political governance and mismanagement.

Discussions around water use and scarcity in Libya reflect broader, global trends.

The notion that the world is entering a water crisis has drastically affected how we perceive water.

The management of this “blue gold’’, as denominated in studies and media, has publicized many debates about water use, from its commodification through privatization to its links with food security now and in the future.

Fears over water shortages are especially pronounced in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), one of the most water-scarce regions in the world, containing only 1.4% of the world’s renewable freshwater.

Moreover, MENA countries are extracting more groundwater than is being recharged in the absence of adequate legal frameworks and water regulations – and climate change is expected to further reduce the groundwater replenishment rate while the demand for water increases.

According to some experts, the Middle East already ran out of water in the 1970s and now largely depends on “virtual water”, i.e., the commoditization of freshwater at the point of origin and its trade across international borders in the form of food imports.

Yet, as Julie Trottier, puts it: “A water crisis can never be defined simply as a water shortage because nature is never ‘short’ of water. Even the driest desert constitutes an ecosystem…Water is short only when social actors have decided it is so for a variety of reasons.

To understand the water crisis in Libya, we must track how powerful and visible actors have defined the political-economic relationship to water, leading them to promote specific “solutions” over others.

This article discusses the defining characteristics and legacies of hydro-politics under Qaddhafi, presents some of the new issues that have emerged since regime change in 2011, and offers some ways forward for water policy in Libya.

The legacy of Qaddhafi’s water policies

Qaddhafi promoted a discourse of Libya as “a country of plenty” – a country full of resource whose wealth put it in a position of power in the MENA region and made other countries dependent on it.

This discourse was always in tension with the reality of climatic conditions.

Libya is one of the driest countries in the world, with 90% of its land being desert, its population concentrated in the northern coast by necessity, and 85% of all water consumption going to agriculture.

The discourse of plenty, unrealistic as it was, served a political purpose: it allowed for the exploitation of Libya’s water resources in ways designed to highlight and preserve Qaddhafi’s power.

Qaddhafi’s signature project, the Man-Made River Project , best exemplifies these dynamics.

For one, and like the case of other development projects and policies, here too Qaddhafi resorted to religious legitimization to exclude public participation.

The project’s famous slogan “turning the desert green like the Jamahiriya flag”, played on “green”, also the colour of Islam.

Moreover, from the beginning, water policy was driven by social and institutional engineering that sought to empower certain tribes over others in order to create loyal bastions of the regime and quash the opposition.

Before Qaddhafi took power in 1969, during the king’s reign, the Sannusi royal family in the east was the one in power.

Qaddhafi decided to change the power structure of the tribal system by empowering less powerful members over the bourgeoisie – all with the aim of building a loyal support base and ensuring unopposed access to the country’s natural resources.

He deliberately weakened state institutions as he centralised power through informal networks surrounding the broader family and his tribe.

Tribal symbolism was key to Qaddhafi’s system throughout his rule and tribal references filled his speeches. A case in point was his inauguration speech to mark the first phase of the MMRP in his hometown in Sirt in 1991, where he was surrounded by tribal members.

In addition to tribal selective empowerment, the MMRP was exclusionary in design. It excluded certain regions, such as the Nafusa mountain area, where the Amazigh community resides.

This area was deprived of any connecting pipes to the project; its residents were forced to rely for many years on water tanks and fossil aquifers.

Another characteristic of water policy under the former regime was the dilution of water management and control over key infrastructures into multiple institutions.

There are five major institutions in Libya responsible for the development, management, and monitoring of water resources and policies:

(a) the General Water Authority,

(b) the Authorities of Implementation and Management and Water Utilisation of the MMRP,

(c) the General Company of Water Desalination (GCWD),

(d) the General Water Supply and Sewerage Company (GWSSC), and

(e) the General Environment Authority.

Multiple institutions lead to more corruption on an administrative level and randomness in the set of decisions made around water specifically.


Malak Altaeb is an analyst at Storyzy, writer, and researcher based in Paris, France. She is an Environmental Policy Master’s graduate from Sciences Po University in Paris, with a bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering from University of Tripoli, Libya. She is a graduate of the North African Policy Initiative’s Young Policy Leaders Program during which she researched and wrote a policy paper on Local Agribusiness Development in Tripoli, Libya.

She participated in the MENA Academy on climate diplomacy with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and MEDRC in Berlin in 2019. Also, she participated in two exchange programs in the United States of America; the first was the Space Camp program in 2010, and the second was the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) in 2015.

She is a member of the Libyan Youth Climate Movement (LYCM) and also the Association Sciences Po pour l’Afrique. She contributed to different domains and magazines, such as sister-hood magazine, Alfusaic, and Libya’s Herald.







Related Articles