Frederic Wehrey

Libya’s climate-vulnerable regions of Jabal Nafusa, Fezzan, and Jabal Akhdar underscore the important role played by civil society and municipalities in protecting marginalized communities.

A vast, arid, oil-dependent country of nearly 7 million people, Libya is acutely exposed to the deleterious effects of climate change. These problems include soaring temperatures, declining rainfall, rising sea levels, extended droughts, and sand and dust storms of increasing frequency, duration, and intensity, to name a few. The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Country Index ranks Libya 126 of 182 states, just after Iraq, in the lower-middle tier denoting most vulnerable countries.

The diminishing availability of water is Libya’s most pressing climate-related risk. Eighty percent of the country’s potable water supply is drawn from nonreplenishable fossil aquifers through a network of pipes known as the Great Man-Made River (GMMR), which suffers from deteriorating infrastructure, evaporation in open reservoirs, unsustainable extraction rates, and uneven service to Libya’s far-flung towns.

The lack of a national water strategy or integrated water policy, along with heavily subsidized water tariffs, has further exacerbated the effects of this scarcity. The provision of clean water increasingly has become a source of regional, communal, and political competition. Electricity is similarly threatened by climate disruptions, particularly temperature spikes, due in no small part again to eroding infrastructure and heavy subsidization, which contributes to exorbitant consumption rates and outages.

Oil dependence is yet another vulnerability. Libya, which has the largest proven reserves in Africa, has long relied on oil exports as its primary source of revenue. This pattern of reliance has resulted in a disproportionately large public sector, which employs 85 percent of the population and leaves the country severely exposed to future declines in oil prices caused by the transition to renewable energy and net-zero carbon pledges. Oil is also used to generate electricity, which is not only costly but contributes—along with the wasteful “flaring” or venting of gas during oil production—to Libya having the highest per-capita carbon emission rate in Africa.

At the height of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s ambitions, arable land comprised only 1.2 percent of the country’s territory and has since shrunk to less than 1 percent. The agricultural sector itself has been contracting steadily since the 2011 revolution, owing to the cumulative effects of conflict, supply chain disruptions, rising costs of agricultural supplies, and the lack of renewable water supplies.

And while it contributes to a miniscule portion of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), estimated at less than 2 percent in 2022, the agriculture sector continues to be a source of income for a not-insubstantial percentage of its inhabitants—estimated at 22 percent in 2020. Libya’s low agricultural output means that it is forced to import three-quarters of its foodstuffs, making the country extremely vulnerable to disruptions in global food supplies, including those resulting from climate change. Endemic government inattention to the agricultural sector has only worsened this dynamic. “They don’t prioritize it because they think it doesn’t contribute to the gross income,” noted a Libyan soil scientist in a telephone interview. “But if we lose local food production, we have food insecurity.”1

These vulnerabilities present an especially dire threat to the well-being and human security of people living in the sparsely populated regions of the Jabal Nafusa (Nafusa Mountains), also known as Jabal Gharbi, west of Tripoli; the southern Fezzan region; and the Jabal Akhdar (Green Mountains) in eastern Libya.

Here, climate shocks are being aggravated not only by environmental degradation but also by socioeconomic marginalization, political and intercommunal conflicts, and collapsing infrastructure. The cumulative impacts of these factors on food security and subsistence farming are a particular concern in these three areas, given that the Jabal Akhdar region produces half of all of Libya’s crops and the Jabal Nafusa region, its adjacent Jafara Plain, and the Fezzan grow the other half. Farmers interviewed in these regions were acutely aware of how climate change combines with political and socioeconomic problems, especially poor governance, to threaten their livelihood.

“The main factor is neglect,” noted one farmer in the Sidi Sayeh area south of Tripoli. “There is no oversight, no support, no investment in growing our capacity as farmers. Climate change adds another layer, but it is the juxtaposition of its effects with the lack of institutional oversight and support that will push farmers like me to leave behind their ancestral practices.”

It is not only farmers who are threatened in these areas. Migrants and refugees are especially at risk, given the proximity of some of these agricultural areas to borders and their resultant role in hosting displaced persons. So too are Libyan ethnolinguistic minorities, for whom climate change compounds preexisting grievances of discrimination. Workers in the informal sector, women, and children are also imperiled.

Understanding how climate change is affecting the well-being and livelihood of these at-risk populations is therefore essential for the crafting of a viable, more inclusive climate strategy, one that mobilizes local resources and knowledge to build better pathways for resilience—for all of Libya’s inhabitants.

The Climate-Governance-Misgovernance Nexus in Libya

Long-standing problems of governance, institutional fragmentation, political tensions, and recurring armed conflict have sharpened Libya’s vulnerability to climate change and also impeded a coherent government response to climate mitigation and adaptation.

The roots of the country’s climate fragility are found in Qaddafi’s poor management of resources and inefficient state-owned monopolies managing water and electricity. Added to this were Qaddafi’s overly ambitious agricultural schemes that saw the rapid depletion of coastal aquifers and a dependence on his much-touted megaproject, the GMMR. He often used the project politically, prioritizing access for favored communities and excluding others who were deemed less loyal.

His peculiar brand of socialist rule oversaw the collectivization of land in the mid-1980s, a process that removed existing legal safeguards on nature preserves and hastened the deforestation of the Green Belt around Tripoli and other cities, which for decades had contributed to a beneficial microclimate, slowed desertification, and stopped soil erosion.

Since Qaddafi’s death in 2011, a worsening spiral of factional conflict, corruption, infrastructural decay, and predation has left ever-greater numbers of people exposed to climate shocks. The chaos has also produced a profound lag in the country’s official response to climate change. Of the 196 signatories to the 2016 Paris Agreement, only Libya has not signed a Nationally Determined Contribution. And even though the country has established a renewable energy plan and has enormous potential for solar and wind energy, it has made little progress on these fronts, in part because of a lack of competitiveness in the private sector and bureaucratic resistance from state-owned monopolies.

Political fissures and elite rivalries are in no small measure to blame for this paralysis. The country is nominally ruled by a Government of National Unity (GNU), but in practice it is split between the Tripoli-based administration and Khalifa Haftar’s increasingly militarized administration in the east. Despite some climate-related cooperation and exchange of information, this split continues to hobble progress.

Even within the GNU, there has been competition over control of climate policy, most evident between the Ministry of the Environment and a climate authority within the prime minister’s office—though the two bodies have reportedly improved their collaboration and coordination.

Increasingly, key ministries and institutions have been taken over by armed groups, in both the east and west, which have further contributed to climate vulnerability through environmental predation, converting tracts of forests into more profitable money-laundering schemes like apartments, malls, and resorts, while also selling chopped-down trees as charcoal.

The effects of such predation, particularly acute in the western Jafara Plain and in the eastern Jabal Akhdar, have only worsened the effects of climate change, particularly for those Libyan citizens who make a living off the land.

“The consequences of climate change became more acute ever since they started breaking down the forests into smaller units, cutting the trees, and selling off the land,” noted a farmer in the southern environs of Tripoli.6 And although the agricultural police department that operates in both the east and west has publicized its crackdown on illegal clearing, it does not cross the red lines of dominant armed groups.

Elsewhere, Libya’s ability to build climate policy is hobbled by a dearth of qualified personnel, insufficient technical capacity, poor local data collection, poor collaboration between the government and universities, and a lack of local-level participation and activism.

Libyan municipalities in particular have important roles to play on climate change advocacy and awareness, but they have been frustrated by a lack of administrative, budgetary, and political support from the capital.8 Libya’s civil society is similarly constrained by a lack of support and increasingly repressive security measures from authorities in both the east and the west. This lack of support has had a chilling effect on climate activists.

These daunting structural and political problems will have profoundly negative consequences for the country’s ability to surmount the challenges of climate change—and they are felt acutely in the mountainous zone just west of the capital.


Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.


Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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