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.