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.
Two of the four phases of the MMPR are currently operational and the project is yet to be completed. The MMRP also sapped state resources, diverting attention and investment from alternative water policies that would have been beneficial, namely desalination.
Although some desalination plants were established as early as the 1960s, the expansion of desalination plants in many coastal cities was slow due to the high dependency and investment that were directed to the completion of the MMRP from the beginning of construction in the early 1980s.
In 2007, the General Company of Water Desalination was established as an offshoot of the Ministry of Electricity, Water and Gas and given responsibility for managing, maintenance, and supervision of desalination plants in the country.
The late establishment of the desalination authority, only four years before the beginning of the revolution in 2011, contributed to the fact that desalination has not received its due attention from the responsible authorities since regime change, contributing to making desalination vanish further in the cloud of existing problems.
Simultaneously, while consuming too much of the country’s financial, organizational, and political capital – to the detriment of developing alternative technologies –, the way the MMRP was imagined made water policy dependent on oil revenue.
To transform Libya into the imagined Jamahiriya (the state of the masses), Qaddhafi followed a sequential process:
(a) he first nationalized the oil sector,
(b) then worked on increasing cultivated lands and agricultural production, such as through Al Kufra agricultural project, and
(c) finally turned to water resources to develop the biggest irrigation project, the MMRP.
The sequence the regime followed to develop these projects, as well as the linkages between them, meant that the development of the agriculture and water sectors depended heavily on oil revenues.
A final, critical element of water policy under Qaddhafi was its dependence on foreign companies to complete projects, wherein these companies were paid for their expertise in terms of capacity, workers, and technology without sufficiently including and training Libyans.
Hydro-politics in post-2011 Libya
Developments since the fall of the Qaddhafi regime have brought water to the political fore in Libya.
Long-held grievances over water access have risen to the surface in the form of popular protests – such as in the eastern city of Tobruk, close to the Libyan-Egyptian border, whose residents took to the streets in 2017 to protest long-standing water shortages.
Moreover, the armed conflict has made the water crisis more visible in many ways:
(a) the presence of international humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF providing drinking water for regions affected by conflict;
(b) the arrival on the scene of power cuts and the ensuing weeks-long water cuts; and
(c) water becoming a target in the ongoing political division and fragmentation, such as when water control systems were vandalized by the forces of Khalifa Haftar during his attack on Tripoli.
Despite the political changes at the top, Libya’s water management over the past decade has struggled to shed parts of its inheritance, namely the top-down nature of water governance, the over-exploitation of available resources, the underinvestment in desalination, and the economy’s extreme dependence on oil revenue, which contributes to the notion among citizens that water consumption should be free.
In addition, the political and economic instability in the country since the revolution has created unfamiliar problems of basic management.
For example, for all its downsides, the MMRP wellfields were constantly under the watch of supervisors, and the different stations of the system – electricity, ventilation, tanks – were under military protection around the clock in all regions.
The situation now is characterised by a generalized lack of attention by state officials to the importance of water issues in general, their neglect of the challenges facing the MMRP, and instability in the institutional structure of the water sector – compounded by electrical power cuts and security volatility.
The severity of the situation in many parts of Libya has left people to dig aquifers in their houses, without any supervision or legal permission.
Without access to alternative methods such as desalination or sewage water treatment, citizens are likely to continue to dig aquifers.
Priorities for water reform in Libya
The urgency for Libya is to develop water policies that are participatory and allow for management at the local level.
During the protests that rocked coastal cities over lack of water, many who mobilized called on improving the continuous shortages by the MMRP authority through investing in desalination policies and reversing course on the inattention given to this technology with the rise of the MMRP.
The desalination authority established in 2007 must be empowered and provided support, both financial and administrative, to begin the maintenance of the existing facilities in different regions in Libya, as well as study the possibility of extending facilities to other regions far from the coast.
The private sector could play a critical role in collaborating to revise and assess the desalination and water treatment facilities.
Such an effort is particularly urgent in the areas that were left outside the network of the MMRP.
A second key need is to invest in raising citizen awareness about water consumption.
The fact that such consumption has been free in Libya – as it is subsidized by the state through oil revenue – lowers incentives for moderating consumption.
Given that the demand for freshwater is expected to rise to 56% above what is currently available by 2025, there are discussions on the possibility of putting a price on water to increase the awareness of people on the importance of preserving water as an essential component of their social contribution.
Relatedly, pricing water raises the spectre of privatization and the transfer of water control and water management services to private companies.
This could be effective in the current situation because it would activate the role of local private companies, which would provide numerous services to cover the state’s failure. Further, it could open opportunities for new entrepreneurs and businesses to develop new methods and tools.
To be successful, such a shift would necessarily have to entail close collaboration between the public and the private sector, as the former can no longer deliver the required services of water supply and sanitation.
Finally, the unification of institutions that manage water is key on the path towards a coherent vision and strategy for the management of water in Libya.
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.