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Libya’s Lifeline: Sub-Saharan Water

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The survival of Libya’s people may well depend on the integrity of their water supply and not only during the current uprising. Built to accommodate the rural irrigation systems as well as populations in most of the country’s major cities, the Libyan water system transports fossil ground water from deep under the Sahara desert. By most accounts, it is the largest underground water system ever constructed in the entire world, financed with nearly $25 billion dollars of the country’s oil revenues. The water system reportedly was mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2008. To its credit the vast underground aquifer has made crop irrigation a viable resource for the country’s agricultural sustainability. Where at one time water had to be brought in or pumped manually each day, there are now underground tunnels, reservoirs and computerized pump stations keeping up with demand. The question is, will it survive the country’s current uprising, and will water continue to flow with few or no maintenance workers on hand to manage the system?

The amount of water available as a renewable resource in Libya today is a paltry 0.6 thousand cubic meters per thousand persons, according to Nation Master, a worldwide statistical website. Water from the underground river system is not renewable, and is not calculated in the above statistic. As in other devastated or collapsed states such as Sudan or Afghanistan, bombings and bacterial contamination are two major threats to Libya’s water supply. If the underground water system fails, most Libyans will be left with at most the 0.6 thousand cubic meters per thousand person as their only water resource, and most likely less. This poses significant risk to survival since individual wells can be contaminated, while desalinated water is barely potable, and the common wadi (dry riverbed) depends on heavy rainfall to fill a reservoir. Because all collection methods are either time consuming or weather-dependent, acquisition will be uncertain. In addition, what little agriculture there is will most likely be diminished.

Moreover, keeping the water pipeline flowing during civil unrest may pose a bigger problem. The water pipeline was made possible by the participation of a group of developers and engineers from across the globe. The project was further supported and encouraged by the United Nations Development Program. The major aquifer is located in Sabha, an oasis located deep in the desert. Many of the development companies were still maintaining those systems up until recently. However, along with oil companies and other foreign nationals, many of the water system maintenance companies are leaving or have already left the region. According to news reports, Pure Technologies, the Canadian company that is currently maintaining the majority of the pipeline, is pulling its people out of the country. At this time nothing is known as to how the country will keep the pump stations in operation, or who will maintain the vast network of pipeline.

There is no question that where there is drought famine and disease, death follows. With the spectre of a civil war looming and oil revenues drying up, Libyan citizens will need all their resources, especially water, just to survive. After all the protests, and the bloodshed, it would be a terrible twist of fate to deny them the one liquid no one can live without.

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About LynnfromBC

  • Clavos

    Interesting article. I’m curious as to why you say, “desalinated water is barely potable.”

    I have a Reverse Osmosis (RO) desalination plant on my boat, which makes potable water from sea water. The product it makes is not only pure enough to drink; it is literally distilled water — ALL impurities (and minerals) have been removed from it, and all desalination plants work to this level of efficiency.

  • LynnfromBC

    Hi Clavos,

    This was a very interesting subject to research especially since there are so many players involved. Seemingly under the radar.

    When I was reading up on the history of the water system in Libya it was mentioned in one of the articles. The only thing I can imagine might be a problem is the state of the equipment and maitenance.

  • Cannonshop

    It may have something to do with economies of scale, Clavos. Reverse-Osmosis is effectively filtration, and works better in small scale than it does at macro-scale (i.e. it works great on your boat, but you’re not going to be able to irrigate a cornfield that way).

    other methods are energy intensive, as well as being capital and equipment intensive, and all require a lot of skilled work to keep running-skilled labour tends to decline in civil war/uprising situations (the skilled guys either make a run for hte border, or wind up jailed as dissidents-or worse, killed as dissidents.)

    That doesn’t include the damage to capital intensive equipment (the plants are even MORE vulnerable compared to the underground system.)

    Water issues are SERIOUS issues-even in a nation as rich and relatively peaceful as the United States, people STILL come to blows over them. Now, imagine a nation NOT at peace with itself, with a shaky water supply. Libya’s got real danger there-Dihydrogen mono-oxide may be a common chemical in industry worldwide, but it’s tougher to extract in that environment than crude-oil.

  • http://claudenougat.blogspot.com Claude Forthomme

    Great article! I hadn’t realized how fragile Lybia’s environment was, particularly with respect to such a vital, fundamental resource such as water.

    What really surprises me is that no mention is made of this water issue in all the coverage both in the press and on TV (I haven’t heard it on Al Jazeera, though I may have missed it)

    The country for the moment appears to be headed towards a breaking up in two pieces: the eastern part, where the revolt started, around Benghazi and the western part, especially Tripoli, still in the hands of tribes supportive of Geddafi. How does this play out with respect to the water source you say is located in the central part of the country? Who is likely to control it?

  • Boeke

    Very good article, and very timely, because Libyas experience will become more widespread in the future.

  • Boeke

    #1 Clavos “…literally distilled water…”. Maybe chemically the same as distilled water, but it is not, literally, created by distillation.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Clavos –

    I agree with C-shop’s statement: Reverse-Osmosis is effectively filtration, and works better in small scale than it does at macro-scale (i.e. it works great on your boat, but you’re not going to be able to irrigate a cornfield that way).

    I used to operate and maintain shipboard distilling plants back in the Navy, and it is as C-shop said – a matter of scale. We used one distilling plant per approx. 1,000 sailors on board…and that was with the paranoia that sailors have had on using too much water since ships first set sail in long-forgotten antiquity.

    In order to supply water for a city of one million, that would require about 1,000 distillation plants (or one plant 1,000 times larger)…and the energy to operate all those plants. And this is all without any consideration whatsoever for irrigating fields or any other such critical use of water.

  • LynnfromBC

    Hi Claude,

    Right now the owner of this water system is the regime and it is the regime that pays the bills, apparently. This

  • LynnfromBC

    Sorry, the rest of that post was cut off. Since the regime owns the pipeline, they are responsible for taking care of it and for what goes into it, for the time being.

    The link in my first post goes to a map with the schematic of all five phases. It shows the pipeline phases designed to be a loop. If one branch fails, another branch can take over. For example, Benghazi gets water from the desert arm at the oasis, if that breaks down, the arm from Tripoli can take over.

    The following link explains how the pipeline was maintained up until recently.

    It is important to note that these pipes are very large, and without water running through them, can be used as major underground thoroughfares, they are that big.

    The GMMR website, up until last week, had pictures demonstrating how a small truck could be driven through the pipes. That website is run by the regime and it appears that it has blocked the pictures. However, the link above and other websites have pictures showing the size of these concrete reinforced pipes.

    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting about this important issue.