Libya, one of the driest countries in the world, faces an alarming and worsening water crisis. In Libya, the narrow coastal region (less than 5% of the country) receives the majority of rainfall. Coupled with increasing water needs as a result of a growing population and over consumption, Libya is facing an increasingly severe water crisis.
Libya’s water demand was nearly double water supply in 2020 (3,820 million cubic meters supplied versus 7,236 million demanded). Out of the currently supplied water, only 1.8% comes from a relatively renewable source of water: water desalination and wastewater treatment. In other terms, Libya’s per-capita water production from renewable sources is less than one tenth of the global average.
With unfavorable geographic and environmental conditions, Libya relies primarily on water supplies from groundwater sources, representing approximately 97% of the water supply in Libya. Surface water contributes to less than 3% of the current water supply in the country. This is because the country has very few rivers, lakes, and natural springs that have fresh and good water quality and an adequate discharge rate.
Most of the groundwater comes from water aquifers in the south of the country that are accessed via the Man-Made River Project (MMR). Established in 1983, the MMR aimed to transfer groundwater from the south to the coastal strip of the country, where the vast majority of the population lives, with around 3,500 KM of pipes.
With its current development stage, the MMR reaches two thirds of Libya’s cities. Despite its magnificence from an engineering standpoint, the MMR carries its own set of challenges and limitations, and is currently functioning at 40% of its full potential. Some areas rely on water wells that extract water from shallow aquifers, called municipal water wells, in addition to water from the MMR and desalination stations.
Libya has long suffered from water scarcity, recently exacerbated by population growth and infrastructure challenges. It will nearly be impossible to meet all needs for longer periods of time under the current conditions and the production from all water projects in dams, wastewater recycling, and water desalination does not cover the deficit of water in Libya.
Libya’s severe water shortage is also being intensified by climate change, which has increased the number of drought days and the rate of evaporation. Water supply in Libya is mainly managed by five institutions: General Water Authority, the MMR project management, the General Company for Water Desalination (GCWD), and the General Water Supply and Sewerage Company (GWSSC) and the Ministry of Environment.
There should be a mapping of roles, capacities, and coordination gaps for these institutions in order to allow the government to identify and address issues in the water sector that stem from its institutional framework. The lack of clarity and a unified strategic plan among these institutions has hampered the sector’s ability to adapt to the growing crisis.
The water supply sector in Libya urgently needs to purchase spare parts and chemicals to operate the desalination plants, which will increase water supply. Additionally, the sector would benefit from a comprehensive assessment of its existing institutional and physical infrastructure and potential alternatives for water supply. The government should then develop its strategy on the basis of this assessment.
In February last year, UNICEF rang an alarm bell by stating that “over 4 million people, including 1.5 million children will face imminent water problems if immediate solutions are not found and implemented”. According to experts, water resources and infrastructures status in Libya are nearing collapse levels.
UNICEF’s warnings were made even more worrisome when a survey covering 45 cities across Libya later the same year found that in Tarhouna, for instance, 73% of the respondents reported having insufficient water to meet their needs in the 30 days prior to the data collection.
This is in line with the fact that in western Libya, the water supply dropped from 1.2 million cubic meters per day to around 800,000 cubic meters because of vandalism and lack of maintenance. With Libya’s exponentially growing population, estimates indicate that Libya will need about 8 billion cubic meters by 2025, twice what it is theoretically supplying today.
The water scarcity issue that the country is experiencing stems largely from man-made causes, including rising water demand from population growth and the effects of armed conflict since 2011. The MMR’s pipeline network has been exposed to several attacks and vandalism that caused it to become unable to function at its full capacity due to pipeline cuts or shutdowns, which can last for days or weeks.
Salah Alsaadi, the spokesperson for the MMR in July 2021, said that “continued attacks on the project’s assets might halt operations and flow of consumption water, a situation that could be disastrous to the country’s water security.” According to Libyans, a large part of the population has already suffered from these frequent water cuts, which is the main reason many more residents had to drill their own wells and not rely completely on the MMR project.
In fact, water was one of the three main services demanded in the protests against deteriorating living conditions in Libya 2020. The continuous water cuts due to poor security conditions of the MMR makes water as a service as one of the triggers that could potentially ignite social unrest. Besides the direct impact of the armed conflict, due to political instability, the state has made minimal investment in terms of maintenance and repairs for the water supply infrastructure.
Because of this, the deteriorating conditions of the water distribution network results in considerable water leakages, which is estimated to often sum to up to 50% of the supplied water. In addition, due to several incomplete expansion projects, the MMR primarily serves coastal regions and large cities, as service to rural and mountainous areas is cost prohibitive.
The reliance of many Libyan households on the groundwater from the shallow aquifers poses a major water security risk. The excessive exploitation of groundwater in coastal areas reduces groundwater levels and increases its salinity in these shallow aquifers, driving many wells out of service. The consequences of this reduction in groundwater levels heavily affects the quality of vegetation cover and agricultural production as access to fresh water is made more costly and difficult, and additionally drives up the salt precipitation in the soil, making it less arable..
This is because when groundwater drops below a certain level, sea water intrudes into fresh groundwater aquifers, which is largely the reason for the increasing salinity of groundwater in coastal regions.(68) In a study on water pollution on the Zawia city coast in 2018, it was found that sea water had polluted wells nearly 6 kilometers inland.
This was caused mainly by heavy agriculture activities in the area and low groundwater recharge. The phenomenon is taking place in several other coastal cities across Libya. With the increasing sea levels due to climate change, sea water intrusion into fresh groundwater is only going to intensify, threatening Libyans’ freshwater access and arable land.
Another alarming cause of the water crisis is the increase in drought days and the decrease in the annual average of rainfall, attributable to climate change. Libya’s annual rainfall averages between 100-600 mm per year, mostly in areas along its coast. In fact, only 5% of Libya receives more than 100mm per year, while most southern areas are facing drought and increasing desertification due to their dry climate.
Although Libya has almost 16 major dams to collect surface water, they do not contribute much to water supply in the country due to low recharge rates and poor surface water management and infrastructure.
In summer 2021, Libya faced one of the longest heat waves in the past four decades, with more than 10 days of unusually high temperature; coupled with the long power cuts, it caused tremendous social stress and made living conditions intolerable for many Libyans.
Long dry days increased the level of evaporation, creating more loss of surface water. In fact, during this year, one of the biggest dams in Libya called Wadi Ka’am became completely dry due to the high levels of evaporation between 2020-2021. This development has strained the farms that are dependent on the dam for irrigation.
Such events worry experts as they indicate an intensifying effect of climate change in the country. Yet more concerning, however, is the fact that Libyan policy makers do not seem to be responding to this serious issue. Although Libya signed the Paris agreement in 2021, there is still no official policy or plan to face the critical effects of climate change on water resources and its management.
Public awareness across Libya about the seriousness of water scarcity in their country is very limited. Libyans are generally unaware of the extent of the issue and the importance of managing water consumption tightly. Compared to its neighbors, Libyans consume considerably more than Tunisians, Egyptians, and Algerians. As per the Worldometer platform, Libya consumes 2,541 liters of water per capita per day, whereas Tunisia consumes 1,168, Algeria consumes 674, and Egypt consumes 2,202 liters.
Considering that the Libyan agriculture sector is significantly smaller than its counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria and the fact that agriculture sectors are the largest consumer of water, Libya over consumes its water resources by a huge margin.
In 2012, the total consumption of water in Libya was estimated at 5.8 billion cubic meters, out of which 83% was consumed by the small agriculture sector, which represented less than 3% of the GDP that year.
If Libya does not control its water consumption, the majority of the Libyan population will have serious difficulties accessing fresh water soon. In addition, there is still a big question mark about water quality, particularly water coming from private wells as there is an intrusion of wastewater from cesspits into these aquifers. Due to the lack of data, the team was unable to understand the severity of the water quality issue.
Climate change has had a huge impact on natural resources across the world and Libya is one of the most affected areas, making the issue a severe water scarcity case. Yet the government has failed to invest in addressing climate change in general or water scarcity in particular. Enforcement of Libyan water-sector legislation remains weak and in some cases is completely absent.
Tariffs levied on water usage do not cover operational costs. Additionally, billing is rarely conducted, which, coupled with the fact that even if fees are collected, water prices in Libya are heavily subsidized, explains the alarming over consumption of water in the agriculture sector. Desalination, a potential alternative to groundwater, is under invested and expensive.
Libya has eight desalination plants spread across its coast. One is completely offline, while the other seven run at roughly 28% capacity due to overdue maintenance and lack of chemicals and spare parts.
Additionally, although desalination offers the only viable alternative to groundwater as the vast majority of the Libyan population lives along the coast, it is energy-intensive and extremely expensive. Currently, each cubic meter of water from desalination plants costs the Libyan government six times the price of a cubic meter from the MMR project.
Therefore, before adopting this alternative on a large scale, the government should assess how it can bring the cost down, as this alternative will otherwise impose a huge burden on the already inflated public budget.
Among other solutions, shifting from the currently in-use light fuel oil to natural gas or solar energy could significantly reduce the cost of the desalination process. Despite its significance for Libya’s water supply in the future, Libya does not have a designated institution or agency to promote and manage desalination resources.
The General Company for Water Desalination (GCWD) only operates the desalination plants. It does not perform any policy and strategy development tasks. Besides desalination plants, Libya has 75 wastewater treatment plants as well.
Out of these 75 wastewater treatment plants, only 10 are reportedly functional.(85) These 10 plants process less than 11% of the generated wastewater from urban centers, while the rest is dumped into the sea or in open space without any treatment, causing great damage to the environment in general and contaminating the sea and shallow groundwater aquifers.
With almost 55% of the Libyan population reliant on private wells that extract water from shallow aquifers, this dumping practice could expose them to dangerous levels of contamination.(86) Data on the extent of this contamination phenomenon are unavailable in Libya.
All of the aforementioned causes, in addition to poor water resources management, are driving Libya to the brink of a catastrophe. Policy makers need to urgently develop policies and allocate the necessary funds to face the current water crisis and maintain better living conditions as well as meet the increasing water needs and urban growth.
The below recommendations are preliminary recommendations that should be further developed based on rigorous assessment of the current situation.
Purchase spare parts and chemicals to operate the existing desalination plants. The government should immediately allocate funds to the GCWD to procure the necessary spare parts and chemicals to improve the functionality of these plants. Additionally, the GCWD should assess the technical status of the out-of-service plants and estimate the required maintenance cost to bring back these plants to service.
Reduce water consumption in the agriculture sector. The excessive consumption of water leads to serious environmental and health issues as discussed above; therefore, the government should invest extensive efforts on raising public awareness about the criticality of the water situation as well as develop policies to tax and ration the usage of water. Additionally, the government should introduce irritation techniques that will make irritation more water-effective. The government should also engage civil society organizations, media outlets, and international organizations to raise citizenry awareness in general about the water issue.
Conduct a comprehensive study of water resources and infrastructure. The government should avoid jumping on baseless strategies and plans; rather, it should carry out an in-depth assessment of water resources and organizational and physical infrastructure across the country, which should be the basis of its interventions. The government should restructure the institutional framework for the entire sector to foster effective coordination and responsiveness as well as explore the potential entry of the private sector into the sector.
Repair water networks. The damage to water networks is mostly due to the conflict, which restricts citizens’ access to water and affects their quality of life. Therefore, the networks that are already in place should be fixed. This will have a significant impact on poor families who could not afford to build their own private water wells.
Establish a state institution that should develop and manage water desalination and waste-water treatment plants . Currently, there is only the General Company for Water Desalination serving as the executing company rather than a regulator and a technical agency. The establishment of such an institution will help the government develop its technical expertise on the matter and allocate more resources and attention to it.
Review and update water regulations. In collaboration with the legislative body, the government should appoint a committee to review the existing legislations for the water sector as a whole and propose the necessary amendments in order to design a legal framework that is fit for addressing the crisis.
Adapt water desalination and wastewater treatment technologies that reduce operational costs. For Libya to move away from the complete reliance on groundwater, these two alternatives must become viable options in terms of cost. For instance, changing from light fuel oil to natural gas or solar energy could considerably reduce the cost. Increasing Libya’s utility of desalination and wastewater treatment processes will help control damaging phenomena such as the seawater intrusion and dumping wastewater into the sea.
Source: “Challenges And Steps Forward For Public Services Reforms In Libya” by Mohamed Elmagbri, Heba Al-Sheikh, Lamis Ben Aiyad, and Rima Hamidan. Published by The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.