Bringing Life to Desert
Текст: Ekaterina Hvorova | 2017-03-11 | Фото:; Peter Betts; vialis, franz Boquet / dollarphotoclub; HERE; Timhall / wikipedia; Patrick Poendl / 123rf | 112069
The largest contemporary civil engineering project is often said to be The Great Man-Made River – a huge underground network of water conduits that supplies 6.5 million cubic meters of drinking water to various localities of the desert and coast areas of Libya. The project is an incredibly important one for this country, but it also provides rationale for looking at the ex-leader of the Libyan Jamahiriya Muammar Gaddafi in a different light as opposed to his public image created by mass media. Maybe that can explain the fact that this project was practically not covered in media at all.

The Eighth Wonder of the World

The aggregate length of underground utility systems of the Man-Made River is close to four thousand kilometers. The volume of the spoil from the construction works is 155 million cubic meters, which is 12 times more than when the Aswan Dam was being constructed. And the construction materials spent for it would be enough to erect 16 Great Pyramids of Giza. Besides pipes and aqueducts, the system includes over 1300 manhole wells most of which are over 500 meters deep. The total depth of all the wells is 70 times the height of Mount Everest.

The main tracks of the water line consist of 7.5 meters long concrete pipes with the diameter of 4 meters and the weight of over 80 tons (up to 83 tons). And each of over 530 thousand of such pipes could easily serve as a tunnel for subway trains.

From the main pipes the water gets into water tanks built on the outskirts of the cities and capable of holding 4 to 24 million cubic meters of water, and that is where local water lines of cities and small towns begin. Fresh water gets into the water line via underground springs located in the south of the country and mostly feeds localities concentrated at the coast of the Mediterranean, including the largest cities of Libya – Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte. The water is withdrawn from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System that is the largest of known fresh groundwater sources in the world. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System is situated in the Eastern part of the Sahara Desert on the area of over two million square kilometers and includes 11 major underground reservoirs. The area of Libya is located above four of them. Besides Libya the NSAS runs underneath several other African countries, including the north-west of Sudan, the north-east of Chad and a large part of Egypt.

The Nubian Aquifer was discovered in 1953 by British geologists during oil search. Fresh water in it is hidden under a layer of hard iron sandstone 100 to 500 meters thick and, as determined by scientists, it was accumulated under water at the time when in the place of today’s Sahara there were vast fertile savannas watered by frequent abundant rainfalls. Most of this water was accumulated within the period of 38 to 14 thousand years ago, but some reservoirs appeared relatively recently – around 5000 BC. When three thousand years ago the climate of the planet drastically changed, Sahara became a desert, but the water that had soaked into the ground for thousands of years had already been accumulated in underground aquifers.

After discovering the large quantities of fresh water several projects of irrigation system construction immediately emerged. However, the idea was put into practice much later and only thanks to Muammar Gaddafi’s government. The project involved the creation of a water line to deliver water from underground reservoirs of the south to the north of the country, to the industrial and more populated part of Libya. In October of 1983 the Project Administration was created and its funding started. The total cost of the project by the start of the construction was estimated at 25 billion dollars, while the planned project duration was at least 25 years. The construction was to be carried out in five phases: the first one was construction of a 1200 kilometers long pipe factory with daily supply of two millions of cubic meters of water to Benghazi and Sirte; the second one was extending the pipelines up to Tripoli and thus providing it with daily delivery of one million cubic meters of water; the third one was completing the construction of the water line from the Kufra Basin to Benghazi; the final two were construction of a western pipe string to the city of Tobruk and uniting all the strings into a single system in the vicinity of Sirte.

Fields that came into being because of the Great Man-Made River are clearly visible from space: on satellite images they have a shape of bright green circles scattered amidst gray-yellow desert areas. Pictured: farmlands around the Kufra Basin.

The actual construction works began in 1984 – Muammar Gaddafi laid the first corner stone on August 28th. The cost of the first phase of the project was estimated at 5 billion dollars. The construction of a unique, first ever giant pipe works was carried out by a South Korean team of professionals using advanced modern-day technologies. Leading professionals of American, Turkish, British, Japanese and German companies arrived to Libya. State-of-the-art machinery was purchased. To lay the concrete pipes 3700 kilometers of roads were built, which allowed moving heavy vehicles along them. Migrants from Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam were used as primary unskilled labor force.

In 1989 water was delivered to the reservoirs of Ajdabiya and Grand Omar Mukhtar, and in 1991 – to Al Ghardabia reservoir. The first and largest set of facilities was officially opened in August of 1991 – the water supply of such large cities as Sirte and Benghazi began. As early as in August of 1996 continuous water supply was established in the Libyan capital Tripoli as well.

In the end the creation of this eighth wonder of the world cost the Libyan government 33 billion dollars, and the financing was effected without any international loans and the IMF support. Recognizing the right to receive water supply as one of the main human rights, the Libyan government did not collect any payments from its citizens for the water. The government also tried not to purchase anything for the project in the «first world» countries, manufacturing all the necessary materials inside the country instead. All materials used for the project were locally produced, while a pipe factory erected for that purpose in Brega manufactured over half a million prestressed concrete pipes four meters in diameter.

Before the beginning of the water line construction 96% of the Libyan area was desert land, with only 4% of the country being suited for life. Upon full completion of the project it was planned to provide water to and cultivate 155 thousand hectares of land. By 2011 the government managed to establish continuous delivery of 6.5 million cubic meters of fresh water to the cities of Libya, providing 4.5 million people with it. It should be noted that 70% of the produced water was consumed in the agricultural sector, 28% – by the general populace, and the rest – by industrial facilities. But the government’s goal was not only providing the population with fresh water but also reducing Libya’s dependence on imported food and subsequent adoption of completely domestic production of food. With the development of water supply systems large agricultural farms were built to produce wheat, oats, corn and barley which had previously been imported. Thanks to watering machines connected to the irrigation system, arid regions of the country saw the rise of artificial oases and fields from several hundred meters to three kilometers in diameter.

Steps were also taken to encourage Libyan citizens to move to the south of the country to the farms created in the desert. However, not all the local population resettled willingly and gladly, with a lot of people still preferring to live in northern coastal areas. This is why the government of the country turned to Egyptian small farmers inviting them to live and work in Libya. Indeed, the population of Libya is only 6 million people, while Egypt has over 80 million, most of whom live along the Nile. The water line also allowed to create a place of resort for people and animals in Sahara right in the middle of a camel caravan track with irrigation canals (aryks) coming to the surface. Libya even started providing supplies of water to the neighboring Egypt.

Compared to Soviet irrigation projects implemented in Central Asia to water cotton fields, the Man-Made River project had several key differences. Firstly, to irrigate the farmlands of Libya they used a very large underground spring, not a surface one that would be relatively small compared to the volume of drawoff. As is well-known, the result of the Central Asian project was the Aral Sea environmental collapse. Secondly, in Libya transportation losses of water were made impossible because the delivery happened underground, and that eliminated evaporation. Devoid of these drawbacks, the water line became an advanced system of delivering water to arid regions.

When Gaddafi was only starting his project, it frequently was an object of mockery by some media, often with a humiliating ‘pipe dream’ cliche thrown in. But 20 years later the rare stories in western media that covered the success of the project began calling it a ‘landmark project’. By that time there were engineers from all over the world coming to Libya to learn from this experience of hydraulic engineering. Starting from 1990, UNESCO assisted the Libyan government in supporting and training engineers and technicians. Gaddafi, however, characterized the water project as “the strongest response to America that accuses Libya of supporting terrorism, saying that we are not capable of anything else”.

In 1999 the Great Man-Made River was awarded the UNESCO International Water Prize – an award that is granted for remarkable research and development projects directed at using water in arid areas.

The Price of Water

On September 1st, 2010, at the opening ceremony of another stretch of the Man-Made River Muammar Gaddafi said: “After this achievement of the Libyan people the threat of the United States against Libya will double. The USA will attempt to do everything under some other excuse, but their real reason will be stopping this achievement and leaving the Libyan people oppressed.” It’s hard to say whether Gaddafi’s words had any solid grounds but the fact remains: as the result of a civil war triggered only several months after that speech, the Libyan leader was overthrown and killed without charge or trial and with active involvement of the West.

Besides that, some experts’ allegations that the military operation in Libya was nothing but “water war” have quite an obvious rationale: water today is gradually becoming the main strategic resource of the planet.

Contrary to oil, water is an essential and primary condition of life. An average human being cannot live longer than 5 days without water. According to the UN, as early as by 2000s over 1.2 billion people were experiencing constant shortage of fresh water, while about 2 billion people suffered from such shortage periodically. By 2025 the amount of people living under the conditions of constant shortage of water is going to exceed 3 billion people. According to the 2007 United Nations Development Programme, global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, which is more than twice as fast as the human population growth. At the same time the number of large deserts in the world is also growing, while the usable farmlands area in most regions is decreasing. Rivers, lakes and large underground water levels all over the world lose their debit. Furthermore, the cost of quality bottled water in the global market can amount to several euros, which far exceeds the cost of one liter of 98 RON gasoline, not to mention the price of one liter of crude oil. According to some estimates, revenues of companies involved in fresh water business will soon surpass the incomes of oil companies. And a lot of fresh water market research reports show that even today over 600 million people (9% of the world population) receive water from dosage meters of private suppliers and pay market prices for it.

In this context the resources of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System are of great commercial value to major foreign corporations, while the Libyan project does not look like it fits into the general scheme of private development of water resources. Look at these figures: the volume of the world’s supply of fresh water concentrated in rivers and lakes of the Earth is estimated at 200 thousand cubic kilometers. Of these lakes, Lake Baikal (the largest fresh-water lake in the world) contains 23 thousand cubic meters of water, while all five Great Lakes contain 22.7 thousand. The reserves of the Nubian reservoir amount to 150 thousand cubic meters, i.e. they are only 25% less than all the water in rivers and lakes. And one mustn’t forget that most rivers and lakes of the planet are highly contaminated. Scientists consider the supplies of the Nubian Aquifer equivalent to the river Nile running for two hundred years. If you take the biggest underground supplies found in sedimentary rocks under Libya, Algeria and Chad, they will be enough to cover the area of these countries with 75 meters thick body of water. According to estimates, these reserves should be sufficient for 4-5 thousand years of consumption.

Before putting the water line into service the cost of desalinated sea water purchased by Libya was 3.75 dollars per ton. The construction of this water supply system allowed Libya to stop importing water altogether. In addition, the sum of all expenses for production and transportation of 1 cubic meter of water cost the Libyan state (before the civil war) 35 US cents, which is 11 times less than before. To compare: the cost of water in European countries is about 2 euros.

In that regard the value of Libyan water reserves is much higher than the value of all its oil deposits. For instance, the proven oil reserves in Lybia, 5.1 billion tons, at the price of USD 400 per ton will constitute about USD 2 trillion. Compare that to the cost of water: even if you consider the minimal price of 35 cents per cubic meter, the Libyan water reserves amount to 10-15 trillion dollars (with the total cost of water in the Nubian Aquifer being 55 trillion), i.e. they are 5-7 times as much as all the Libyan oil reserves. But if this water is exported in bottles this amount will increase manifold.

By the beginning of the 2011 war three stages of construction of the Great Man-Made River had already been completed. The construction of the final two stages was planned to be continued within the subsequent 20 years. However, the NATO air strikes inflicted significant damage to the pipelines and destroyed the pipe factory that could have continued the construction and maintenance of the system. Many foreign citizens who had been working on the project for dozens of years had to leave the country. Because of the war, water supply for 70% of the population was disrupted and the irrigation system was damaged. And NATO air strikes directed at electrical power supply systems cut off the water supply of even the areas where pipes were undamaged.


Besides the above mentioned political risk, the Great Man-Made River had at least two more. It was the first large project of that kind, which is why nobody could predict what exactly would happen when the water-bearing strata started to run dry. Concerns were voiced that the whole system would simply collapse under its own weight into the newly formed gaps which could lead to massive sinkhole collapses in several African countries. On the other hand, it was unclear what would happen to the existing natural oases, because many of them were initially fed by the water-bearing strata. Today the drying out of at least one natural lake in the Kufra Basin is said to be due to the overexploitation of the aquifers.

But, be that as it may, at this moment the Man-Made Libyan River is one of the most complex, most expensive and largest engineering projects accomplished by humanity. And moreover, this project grew out of a dream of one person “to make the desert as green as the flag of the Libyan Jamahiriya”.


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