In the city of Dehiba, located in the far south of Tunisia and on the Libyan border, camel herders complain about the difficulties they face in finding reliable water sources for their livestock, as well as the high cost of water transportation due to increases in fuel prices. The difficulties they face are not limited to Tunisia but rather reflect shared issues that affect communities across the desert regions of North Africa. As a local civil society activist noted to me, in Libya, the camel herders of Tiji and Nalut near the Tunisian border had historically been somewhat shielded from environmental and economic pressures by better income levels and subsidized fuel. However, after a decade of civil war and political turmoil, alongside successive years of failing rains, Libya’s camel herders just like their Tunisian neighbors now also face existential threats to their livelihoods. Focusing on the question of water security for Libya’s marginalized communities, this article will consider the country’s water politics and environmental issues, its historical approach to the issue of water scarcity, and potential solutions.
Gaddafi and the GMMRP: miracle or mirage?
Announced in 1984, the Great Man-Made River Project (GMMRP) was designed to transport groundwater from desert aquifers to Libya’s coastal regions. Considered the largest groundwater pumping and transport project in the world, the GMMRP is made up of some 1,300 wells and 4,000 kilometers of pipes, and transports 6.5 million cubic meters of water per day to the country’s major cities, including Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk, Sirte, and Zawiya. Alongside supplying water to the country’s urban population, the GMMRP provides crucial irrigation water for its agricultural areas.
Despite this, the GMMRP did not offer a panacea to Libya’s water needs, which has seen population growth place further pressure on the country’s water resources. In addition, the GMMRP came to reflect and reinforce the country’s social, political, and economic inequalities. As Libyan analyst and TIMEP Nonresident Fellow Malak Altaeb observes, while the GMMRP was operationalized by Gaddafi to depict Libya as a ‘country of plenty’ with seemingly infinite water supplies, in reality, the project worked to direct water, capital, and power toward certain constituents loyal to the regime. In turn, other groups such as the Amazigh community in the Nafusa mountain area were cut off from the project.
With the start of the armed conflict in 2011, the GMMRP became the target of sabotage, preventing the pipelines to work at full capacity. To take one example, in 2020 an armed group loyal to Khalifa Haftar stormed a control station on the GMMRP, shutting down pumps and threatening workers. The group shut off Tripoli’s water supply in a bid to pressure the release of the militants’ detained family members. The GMMRP had become the site of water weaponization, where water scarcity becomes a tool of war and is used as a means to coerce and subjugate local populations, and as a form of leverage. A large-scale, national, and intranational infrastructure, which crosses contested zones and is difficult to securitize, is particularly vulnerable to such attacks and manipulation.
Desalination, wastewater treatment, and locally-based solutions
In addition to its vulnerability to political and social manipulation, the GMMRP also demanded high levels of state investment, which occurred at the expense of investment in other water technologies, such as desalination. As scholars have noted, diversifying toward desalination and wastewater treatment offers tested solutions to water scarcity in arid regions such as Libya. Moreover, desalination has the potential to reduce Libya’s greenhouse gas emissions due to the relatively lower levels of energy required to power desalination plants compared to pumping water from desert to coastal regions. That being said, desalination plants are not without environmental impact. Of most concern is the sustainable disposal of concentrated brine produced in the desalination process, which can have negative health effects for communities living near to desalination plants and the local ecosystem.
The country currently has eight desalination plants, although one station is not operational and the other seven are running at about 28 percent of their operational capacity because the General Company for Water and Wastewater Company, which operates the country’s water supply systems, has been facing financial difficulties to cover maintenance costs. Similarly, Libya has 75 sewage treatment plants, intended for agricultural use, but only 10 are operational, processing less than 11 percent of the country’s urban wastewater. Such low operating levels are the result of historic underinvestment in public water and sanitation, with almost 30 years without maintenance. As a result, cities such as Tobruk, Al-Bayda, Marada, and Benghazi have suffered from frequent water shortages.
To increase Libya’s desalination and water treatment capacity will require large and targeted investment. There are encouraging signs that multinationals are beginning to consider investing in Libya’s water infrastructure. For example, the Metito-Orascom alliance has recently announced their wish to establish a desalination plant in Libya. However, it remains to be seen if the alliance will precipitate further investment and questions remain over the such multinationals commitment to pursuing environmentally responsible desalination programs.
For such plants to offer a reliable source of water for all Libyans, it is necessary to put in place an independent water authority to manage water pricing and distribution across different sectors. It is crucial that such an authority is free from partisan control and it does not become a source of political conflict and corruption. Given Libya’s current political instability and deep factional divides, such national regulatory bodies offer a future blueprint rather than a realistic present solution. A more pragmatic approach may be to focus efforts at the establishment of local level, water associations to manage, operate, raise awareness around, and maintain a community’s water system. Such associations have been particularly successful in Tunisia, where nearly 2,500 associations exist to manage drinking water and irrigation.
Notwithstanding the importance of desalination and waste treatment in Libya, creative, locally-based water solutions should not be overlooked. Indeed, Libya has a tradition of household-centered water conservation and use. Alongside sinking wells for personal use, traditional Libyan houses often contained a magen, a basin for collecting seasonal rainwater, which can cleanly store water for months. In addition, the ancient system of groundwater management—known as qanat and found across the Middle East and North Africa—offers a sustainable and energy efficient alternative to deep wells and the GMMRP. Qanats only draw water at the rate that groundwater is replenished and use gravity, rather than energy intensive pumps, to bring water to the surface. Taking inspiration from such traditional practices and water management, and combining them with modern technologies, offers a potential alternative to large-scale water infrastructure and allows individual households and communities to protect themselves against national water shortages.
Environmental concerns beyond water?
As in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, environmental issues are often viewed through the prism of water scarcity. In part, this is because water—its availability, management, and use—will be central to Libya and other countries’ climate change mitigation strategy. Other environmental concerns and pressures, such as pollution, desertification, habitat reduction, and sea level rise are under considered elements in Libya’s broader environmental sphere and are intrinsically connected to water management. One way to take this into consideration would be to develop a broader energy transition strategy. This would locate water management within broader environmental considerations, including investment in renewable energy sources, the promotion of sustainable farming practices, and the protection of the country’s ecosystems. For example, desalination plants and water pumps could run on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, offering a sustainable water supply and kickstarting the country’s renewable energy sector. In addition, farmers could be given water subsidies in return for a commitment to moving toward low water-intensive crops such as sorghum and grain legumes (lentils, black gram, cowpea, and others). Finally, robust legislation on where desalination plants can be located will help protect fragile wetland ecosystems from brine influx and also increase public awareness of the country’s ecosystems and their ecological and cultural value.
Achref Chibani is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa region.