September 1st is
the anniversary of an event little known in the West. Today, twenty years on, the
people who deserve to be celebrating it, are instead enduring a war. Yet the
achievement changed their lives greatly and merits recognition.
A tap was turned on in Libya. From an enormous ancient aquifer, deep below the Sahara Desert, fresh water began to flow north through 1200 kilometres of pipeline to the coastal areas where 90% of Libyan people live, delivering around one million cubic metres of pure water per day to the cities of Benghazi and Sirte.
Crowds gathered in the desert
for the inaugural ceremony. Phase I of the largest civil engineering venture in
the world, the Great Man-made River Project, had been completed.
It was during the 1953 search for new oilfields in southern Libya that the ancient water aquifers were first discovered, four huge basins with estimated capacities each ranging between 4,800 and 20,000 cubic kms. Yes, that's cubic kilometres. There is so much water that Libya had recently also offered it to Egypt for their needs.
After the bloodless revolution of 1969, also on September 1, the new government nationalised the oil companies and spent much of the oil revenues to harness the supply of fresh water from the desert aquifers by putting in hundreds of bore wells. Muammar Gaddafi's dream was to provide fresh water for everyone, and to turn the desert green, making Libya self-sufficient in food production. He established large farms and encouraged the people to move to the desert. But many preferred life on the coast and wouldn't go.
So Gaddafi next conceived a plan to bring the water to the people. Feasibility studies were carried out by the Libyan government in the seventies and in 1983 the Great Man-made River Authority was set up. The project began the following year, fully funded by the Libyan government. The almost $30 billion cost to date has been without the need of any international loans. Nor has there been any charge on the people, who do not pay for their reticulated water, which is regarded in Libya to be a human right and therefore free.
GMMR Project figures are staggering. The 'rivers' are a 4000-kilometre network of 4m diameter lined concrete pipes, buried below the desert sands to prevent evaporation. There are 1300 wells, 500,000 sections of pipe, 3700 kms of haul roads, and 250 million cubic metres of excavation. All material for the project was locally manufactured. Large reservoirs provide storage, and pumping stations control the flow into the cities. The pipeline first reached Tripoli in 1996 and when Phase V is completed, the water will allow about 155,000 hectares of land to be cultivated.
To achieve all this, construction work was tendered and many overseas companies, including from US, Korea, Turkey, Britain, Japan and Germany took up contracts for each Phase, and some have worked for decades in Libya. The project has not been without problems, including faulty materials and financial difficulties within some of the contracting firms. Since the NATO air attacks on Libya began in March, most foreign nationals have returned home, including those employed on the hydro scheme. The final phase of the Great Man-made River Project is stalled.
Libyan people put their hearts into work on the GMMRP from the beginning, and years ago took on most of the managerial and technical positions as their expert knowledge increased, with government policy encouraging their education, training and employment. They proudly call the GMMR "the eighth wonder of the world."
(UN Human Development Index figures for Libya since the beginning of Gaddafi's influence can be found here.)
The project was so well recognised internationally that UNESCO in 1999 accepted Libya's offer to fund an award named after it, the Great Man-Made River International Water Prize , the purpose of which is to "reward remarkable scientific research work on water usage in arid areas".
Gaddafi was often ridiculed in the West for persevering with such an ambitious project. Pejorative terms such "pipedream", "pet project" and "mad dog" appeared in UK and US media. Despite a certain amount of awe for the enormity of the construction, the Great Man-made River was often dismissed as a "vanity project" and then rarely mentioned in western media. But truth is, it's a world class water delivery system, and often visited by overseas engineers and planners wanting to learn from Libyan expertise in water transfer hydro-engineering.
On 22 July this year, four months into the air strikes to "protect civilians", NATO forces hit the GMMR water supply pipeline. For good measure the following day, NATO destroyed the factory near Brega that produces the pipes to repair it, along with killing six guards there.
NATO air strikes on the electricity supply, as well as depriving civilians of electricity, mean that water pumping stations are no longer operating in areas even where the pipelines remain intact. Water supply for the 70% of the population who depend on the piped supply has been compromised with this damage to Libya's vital infrastructure.
Oh, and by the way, attacking essential civilian infrastructure is a war crime.
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