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.