Frederic Wehrey

The Jabal Nafusa

Rising to 900 meters above sea level (nearly 3,000 feet), the Jabal Nafusa are a rugged mountainous plateau that arcs around the Jafara plain west of Tripoli and stretches over 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) to the Tunisian border. Historically, the region has been of marginal political and strategic significance, though this changed with the 2011 revolution, given the range’s role as a base for anti-Qaddafi rebels and its location alongside routes into the capital.

The divisions within the Nafusa region that emerged during that period—as some towns supported the uprising and others opposed it—reflected in many instances the Qaddafi regime’s exploitation of intercommunal tensions by granting favored communities grazing land, employment in the security services, and even access to water.

Roughly speaking, the most prominent division today in the region is an ethnolinguistic one between Arab communities, who historically were pastoralists, and the Amazigh people, who were predominately settled farmers (hadhar).

That said, neither the Amazigh nor the Arab communities in the Nafusa region behave today as a monolithic bloc: allegiances and alliances among their respective towns often straddle the ethnolinguistic line and are constantly shifting.

Against this backdrop of fragmentation, climate change and its attendant worsening of water shortages has sharpened intercommunal tensions in the Nafusa region and tensions between Nafusa communities and the Tripoli government.

Historically farmed since antiquity, the eastern portions of the Nafusa range are the most fertile and productive, particularly for the cultivation of olive, fig, and almond trees. And even though the region has always grappled with droughts, sandstorms, and erratic rainfall, anthropogenic climate change and global warming are causing a different sort of threat.

Local farmers have noticed that winters are getting warmer while summers have become drier and hotter, without the usual cooling-off in the evening, leading to outbreaks of wildfires that required the dispatch of firefighting equipment from outside the country.

Rainfall appears less frequently, and sandstorms are changing in seasonality and increasing in intensity, the result of both global warming and local factors such as declining plant cover and soil erosion. Desertification—a direct result of climate change—is increasing as well, with expanding sand reducing the area of cultivable land.

The impact of these stressors has been magnified by the aforementioned inefficiencies in water supply and political marginalization. Qaddafi’s historical mistrust and suppression of the Amazigh people led him to deny predominantly Amazigh towns in the Nafusa region access to the MMR network, forcing a reliance on wells and water tanks that continues to this day.

The MMR’s discontinuity continues to plague the predominately Amazigh towns of Yifren, Nalut, Jadu, and Qala’a, as well as some Arab towns like Zintan, which was scheduled to be connected to the pipeline system before the 2011 revolution interrupted that work. Consequently, a significant number of Nafusa communities have been forced to rely on water shipments delivered by tanker trucks.

But these trucks, which haul water up steep mountain roads from a reservoir at the base of the Jabal Nafusa, are too few in number to service the entire region and often are prohibitively expensive for many families. Accessing deep groundwater aquifers through excavation and well-digging is another option, but this too is a costly and often unsuccessful endeavor.

Moreover, wells in some locales often are too few to cover the population’s needs or have fallen into disrepair. Even in communities that the MMR reaches, the water supply is often limited and inconsistent.

In the face of such infrastructural and climate challenges, some Amazigh communities in Nafusa have taken to reviving ancestral adaptation and stewardship mechanisms including agroforestry, terracing techniques, and water management practices.

One such method, agdal, is a communal approach to land utilization characterized by the cyclic utilization of grazing areas, a mindful approach to water consumption that prioritizes sustainable sustenance, and, most importantly, a profound set of social and ethical principles centered around the responsible management of fertile and water-abundant lands.

Traditional customs like agdal enable Amazigh communities to gather and preserve water during the rainy seasons and thrive amid challenging environmental circumstances.

Elsewhere, municipal leaders in Nafusa are leading grassroots efforts on climate adaptation, focusing on rationalizing water and electricity consumption and combating desertification.

They are pushing for greater local empowerment while soliciting services from the GNU in Tripoli and support from foreign states and donors. But such efforts remain hampered by meager budgets from authorities in the capital.

In one notable case, the mayors of three Nafusa towns—Jadu, Yifren, and Kabaw—reportedly diverted the 150,000 dinar allotment from the Tripoli government for the purchase of an official car to fund environmental services and to address their towns’ water scarcity problems.

More broadly, though, municipalities suffer from Libya’s aforementioned lack of political and fiscal decentralization, a shortcoming acutely felt by people in other parts of the country grappling with climate change, especially those in Libya’s underdeveloped desert south.


The southwest region of Fezzan, stretching over 200,000 square kilometers (nearly 125,000 square miles), is Libya’s driest, hottest, and most inhospitable area, marked by a Saharan topography of sand dune seas, gravel-strewn plateaus, volcanic mountains, dry riverbeds, and oasis depressions.

Climate change is thus a particular concern for its inhabitants. As it has been for millennia, water continues to be a prized and contested commodity in this region, evident in Fezzan’s role in supplying the aquifer-fed water to the MMR pipeline, a quality that has only grown in importance as Libya’s northern groundwater supplies are depleted by salinization.

Water has also aggravated a deepening sense of socioeconomic exclusion by Fezzan’s inhabitants, who comprise 10 percent of Libya’s population.

Today, Fezzan is Libya’s poorest region, even though it is home to important oil fields that produce one-quarter of the country’s total crude output. Though Qaddafi set up thousands of hectares of state-owned farms in the south, the infrastructure has fallen into disrepair since the 2011 revolution.

Moreover, the Qaddafi regime rewarded favored Arab tribes with preferential access to the smuggling trade and other privileges and marginalized non-Arab ethnolinguistic minorities, such as the Tabu and the Tuareg. The Tuareg, however, were slightly better off because they had been included in the security services and had access to agricultural land.

Those disparities are felt today in outbreaks of violent conflict between and within these groups, often over access to increasingly important fixed economic streams derived from the cross-border smuggling of people and goods as well as access to the region’s oil fields.

Climate change, with its attendant effects of water scarcity, expanding desertification, and extended droughts, will further inflame these fissures and also amplify the grievances the people of Fezzan feel toward the north.

Already, Fezzan’s importance as a source of water has been leveraged as a means of conveying those grievances, with tribes and protesters dismantling or otherwise sabotaging pumps along the MMR network, at one point at a rate of four pumps per month.

In the vital Hassawna area of Fezzan, which supplies Libya with 60 percent of its water, vandalism of wells diminished water output by over 30 percent, causing shortages in the north.

Rapidly diminishing groundwater is yet another problem, especially in the Murzuq Basin, where a major aquifer provides water to towns and farms in the southwest portion of Fezzan not connected to the MMR. According to one projection, the aquifer may be depleted as soon as 2037, causing severe socioeconomic damage throughout the area.

In the Tuareg and Tabu communities of the south, the perception of municipal neglect is magnified by deeply entrenched feelings of ethnolinguistic discrimination by Arab elites in the north.

In the southwest municipality of Ubari, for example—home to substantial agricultural land and Libya’s largest oil field, and the site of fierce intercommunal and political conflict from 2014 to 2016—Tuareg residents have long complained about the diversion of water and petroleum wealth to the north. Some believe that this diversion, and the attendant exodus of youth from the region, will pose an existential crisis for their survival as a distinct minority.

“The Tuareg will disappear,” noted one Tuareg activist from the area, who served as a former deputy minister of water. He described a proposal by a young local Tuareg engineer to purify sewage water and use drip-irrigation to cultivate a tree line from Ubari to Sabha in order to counter desertification without endangering future water access.

“As long as there are people there is sewage, so it is sustainable,” he maintained. But the engineer’s plan remained unrealized, he stated, owing to a lack of support from Tripoli. 

The effects of water scarcity, compounded by climate change, will disproportionately affect Fezzan’s most vulnerable inhabitants.

Even with the deterioration of agriculture infrastructure through conflict, theft, and neglect since 2011, many still depend on farming for their livelihood. Displaced persons and migrants—whose numbers in Fezzan are likely to grow in the face of climate shocks and slow-onset climate pressures—are especially reliant on agricultural work, sometimes in forced labor conditions under armed groups and smugglers.

Though men provide the primary labor, women often assist in the rearing of livestock, and children under the age of sixteen provide farming labor, especially during school vacations.

Given its remoteness, the south also faces challenges of transporting crops to northern markets. Road networks are especially vulnerable to worsening sandstorms, which raise transportation costs.

Throughout Fezzan, there are often fruitful exchanges between private and public entities in towns and cities. One such meeting took place at a workshop on the challenges and prospects of sustainable development in southern Libya, convened in February 2023 between Tripoli University, Sebha University, Sahara and Sahel Observatory, and the Libyan Center for Studies & Researches for Environmental Science and Technology.

An agricultural research center in the northern coastal city of Misrata, as another example, is teaching farmers in the south to grow crops using less water and to use water with greater salinity, while also introducing newer, more durable seed varieties that are better adapted to the increasingly arid conditions.

Even with these indicators of progress, municipal officials in Fezzan have complained vociferously about the lack of appropriate central government legislation, authorization, and funding, which would empower them to act as agents for climate adaptation rather than simply as providers of services such as water and waste removal.

They also face outmoded laws that prohibit direct interaction with foreign companies and officials, which prevent them from obtaining outside expertise and equipment. Partly as a result, local-level efforts to harness the region’s great potential in solar and wind remain sporadic and unrealized.

These same concerns about sustainability in the face of government inertia are also present in Libya’s third climate-affected periphery, the mountains of the east, where historically abundant rainfall is rapidly diminishing.


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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