Written by Jehron Baggaley
As the world has become more and more developed, humanity has started to take a lot of things for granted. One of these things is water – when we turn on our kitchen sink, water flows. When you turn on the shower, water blasts out. Sprinkler systems keep our grass green, cool mist keeps grocery store produce fresh, and indoor plumbing, of course, owes its wonderful existence to a constant supply of water to wash away our unwanted waste.
If you live in an area with a lot of rainfall, you may never have put too much thought into where all this water comes from, but some areas of the world aren’t quite so fortunate. Take for instance, the Sahara Desert, which receives an average of only a few centimeters of precipitation per year, while taking up nearly as much space as the entire United States. People living in the Sahara have always had to be creative about managing their water sources, but the problem has only been magnified in recent years as the population continues to grow in North Africa. So how do these countries keep up? Well, each country within the Sahara has its own methods of sourcing and transporting water, some better, and some worse, but the most advanced in this sector, by far, is Libya.
Today we’re going to explore how Libya, despite being one of the driest nations on earth, has solved their water issues with the largest irrigation project in the history of mankind – This is the Great Man-Made River.
On December 24, 1951, the United Kingdom of Libya declared its independence, putting an end to decades of Italian colonization in North Africa. Almost immediately after being formed, the new nation had quite a few challenges ahead of it, such as bringing political stability to the many different provinces and establishing international relations. But perhaps the most important piece of the agenda was to figure out the future of Libya’s economy, and those in power had the perfect idea: oil.
As global dependence on oil continued to rise, the Libyan government was certain that the lucrative black gold would be the key to securing their nation’s finances, and so they immediately got to work searching for oil reserves within their borders.
Exploration drilling soon began in several provinces, peering deep into the sandstone, and it was then, in 1953, that workers drilling in the Al-Kufrah region hit the jackpot. Only, it wasn’t oil that they found under the desert – it was water.
Fossil water, to be exact. It turns out that the groundwater they’d tapped into was part of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, an absolutely massive reservoir of H20 that filtered down through the sandstone and accumulated all the way back during the last ice age, a period when the Sahara enjoyed plenty of rainfall. Using trace amounts of the radioactive isotope chlorine-36, which has a half-life of 300,000 years, researchers have estimated the water to be anywhere from 10,000 to a million years old. And that’s exactly why it’s called fossil water – it accumulated there long ago, and isn’t being replenished today.
And this aquifer system is huge, to say the least. In fact, it’s the largest of its kind in the world, covering an estimated 2.6 million square kilometers, an area nearly the size of Kazakhstan, which, by the way, is the 9th largest country on earth. The thickness of the reservoir ranges from around 160 meters in some areas to well over 600 meters in others, creating a vast, underground oasis beneath parts of Libya, Egypt, Chad, and Sudan.
When the Libyan government was made aware of the accidental discovery, they knew that they’d uncovered something valuable, but at the time, they didn’t quite appreciate it’s potential. Vague plans were made to turn the land above the aquifer into a neat agricultural sector, which sounds great and all, but they never really got around to this and instead went back to focusing on looking for oil. And oil they later found, revolutionizing Libya’s economy and bringing some much-needed wealth to the nation. But things were about to change in Libya, and when the dust eventually settled, the potential of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System was going to be back on center stage.
Gaddafi’s Great Plan
With the newfound oil came money, lots of it, but with the money came political issues, mostly revolving around Libya’s monarch, King Idris. This culminated on September 1st, 1969, when a military coup d’etat abolished the monarchy and established an entirely new government, one that would ultimately result in one man having absolute authority over Libya – Muammar Gaddafi, who would go on to rule the nation for more than 40 years.
Gaddafi did a lot of things during his time in power, most of which are extremely controversial and we won’t bother covering them in this post, but one relevant aspect of his leadership was how heavily he focused on domestic growth as part of his unique take on socialism. And looking for the ultimate way to boost his nation’s quality of life under this new system, he eventually turned back to the vast reservoirs of fossil water waiting under the desert.
In October 1983, The General People’s Congress of Libya held a meeting in the People’s Hall and voted to approve the construction of a vast irrigation system that would bring water from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System to major population centers. They called it the Great Man-Made River Project, and work was set to begin the following year. Contractors were hired, government funding was made available, and in 1984, the first foundation stone was set by Gaddafi himself, officially marking the beginning of the first phase of construction.
Hundreds of deep wells were dug in two locations, Tazirbu and Sarir. These wells pumped water up to the surface from pools as deep as 500 meters underground, bringing it into the massive concrete pipes being laid at the surface. These pipes alone were a sight to behold – not only do they have a diameter of 4 meters, each individual 7 meter section is wrapped in eight kilometers of metal wire for added strength. Once water has reached these gargantuan pipes, it is first pumped to a holding reservoir in Ajdabiya, after which it is piped directly to one of two final locations: north to Benghazi or west to Surt. Water first reached the mid-point reservoir in 1989, and the completion of this first phase was announced just a couple years later in 1991. Phase 1 is made up of nearly 1600km of pipes, and is capable of moving an estimated 2 million cubic meters of water every single day.
Not long after the first section was completed, work began on Phase 2, aiming to bring fresh water to Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Water for this second phase is pumped from underneath the Jabal al-Ḥasāwinah region, after which it is transported to the Al-Jifarah plain. Flowing mostly downhill from there, the water flows through and supplies several smaller cities before reaching Tripoli, which was achieved in 1996.
This is already a massive endeavor, but it’s not even the end of the story. Phase 3 was completed in 2009, adding an additional 1200 kilometers to the existing network, stretching to new reserves and adding supporting infrastructure. Phase 4 is currently under construction, which is planned to extend Phase 1, connecting it to newly dug wells further south, and finally, Phase 5 is planned to be completed in 2025, which will connect the eastern and western halves of the project.
This system of pipes is the largest irrigation project ever completed in our planet’s history. In total, all 5 phases of the Great Man Made River will contain nearly 6000 kilometers of pipeline, which, for reference, is about the distance you’d cover if you drove from Paris to Moscow, and then back to Paris. Even crazier is the amount of wire used to strengthen the pipes, which is enough to wrap around the equator of the earth more than 200 times.
It pumps an astounding 6.5 million cubic meters of fresh water every single day, providing more than 4 million people with clean drinking water. That’s about 75 cubic meters per second, nearly double the output of the Rio Grande River in Texas. To lay all the pipes in the sand, an incredible 250 million cubic meters of ground was excavated, mostly using bulldozers.
Libya was able to fund the entire project without international loans, and, other than two companies in South Korea and Australia, manufactured the majority of the necessary materials. It’s estimated that the total cost of the project will be around 27 billion dollars, expensive for sure, but nearly 10 times cheaper than an equal level of desalination plants to treat salty sea water from the coast.
It’s also boosted agriculture, since the Libyan government heavily subsidizes the water for farmers who use it for crops. Most farmers pay just 62 cents for 1000 liters.
Its size, scale, and unparalleled importance is what drove Gaddafi to nickname it the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. Bit of a conflict of interest since he was the person who oversaw its construction, but you don’t need to live in the Sahara to appreciate such an architectural achievement. It seems that Libya has conquered the desert, but there are a couple issues that could put an end to the entire operation.
The Future of the Oasis
The first issue facing the Great Man Made River is the human threat. The 21st century has been full of political turmoil for Libya, and, as a result, the irrigation system has inevitably fallen into the crosshairs.
The First Libyan Civil War began in 2011, when several armed groups joined forces in an effort to remove Gaddafi from power. Eventually, on behalf of the United Nations Security Council, NATO intervened, and began carrying out airstrikes on Gaddafi’s forces. One of these airstrikes struck the Brega Plant, one of the main manufacturers of pipes for the project. NATO claimed that there were military vehicles firing rockets from its vicinity, and showed a photo of a BM-21 Grad as evidence, but, regardless, severe damage had been inflicted on critical infrastructure that would be needed to carry out future repairs on the pipes.
During the Second Libyan Civil War, which began in 2014, several points of the pipes were damaged, leaving some cities with far less water than normal, and, because of the widespread chaos, much of the system was neglected and left unrepaired. After 5 years of this, more than 100 of the deep water wells were beyond repair, and had to be dismantled.
The system is also a big target for terrorists, such as when an armed group seized control of a treatment station and cut off all water to Tripoli, leaving 2 million without water. This exact scenario actually happened multiple times – fresh water is a perfect hostage in the Sahara.
Along with opposing groups within Libya, there is growing competition with neighboring countries, like Egypt, who are also looking to start using the water for their own citizens as well. Because the system runs underground through several countries, this could easily lead to disputes.
But aside from humans destroying or neglecting the system, there is one big problem – we aren’t exactly sure how much water is left. Estimates on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System vary wildly, and new pockets of water are found all the time, but like we mentioned earlier – despite being twice the volume of the Caspian Sea, at the end of the day it’s fossil water, meaning it accumulated there long ago and it isn’t being replenished. Libyan officials estimate that, at the current rate of use, the water reserves will last for 4625 years, but others are far more skeptical. Some independent studies have claimed that there is less than a 1000 years of water left, which doesn’t sound too bad, but some have claimed that it’s less than 100, with some going as low as 60 years left. If that’s true, it could spell disaster within this century.
But while there are some unknowns, for the people benefiting from its construction, the Great Man Made River has lifted life in Libya to new heights. Libya has the highest score on the Human Development Index in all of Africa, and it owes much of this to its relative water security. It has also brought more farming self-sufficiency and added new vegetation to the arid desert. It is truly an engineering marvel, and a victory for man over mother nature.