When we talk about the world’s greatest pipe networks which have transformed countries and the lives of people, then one stands out perhaps more than any other – the Great Man Made River of Libya.
Libya is one of the driest countries on Earth. Some areas can go between five and 10 years without seeing any rainfall.
Fulfilling the water needs of the population is tough enough in such arid conditions, let alone having enough water to farm the land and help make Libya self-sufficient in terms of food production.
80 percent of Libya’s population – some six million people – live on the northern coastline alongside the Mediterranean. In these areas, the rare sources of groundwater that exist are salty and contaminated by sewage.
Libya therefore relied on expensive desalination plants drawing and purifying seawater from the Mediterranean as its main source of freshwater.
With unreliable infrastructure and the costs involved in the desalination process, turning on the taps and having sufficient amounts of water come out was considered a luxury from Tripoli in the west to Tobruk in the east.
Freshwater may have been in short supply, but the one thing that Libya did not want for was oil. With vast reserves across the country, exploration spread to the deserts in the south during the 1950s.
Rather than oil, water was discovered. Vast quantities of it, in fact, all stored underground. Four huge basins were found with estimated capacities ranging from 4,800 up to 20,000 cubic kilometres.
This water was anywhere between 10,000 and one million years old. It had collected during the last ice age, when the Saharan region enjoyed a temperate climate. The water had remained untouched and undiscovered ever since.
Suddenly, Libya had untapped natural water reserves. If this water could be accessed, then it had the potential to transform the country by making it self-sufficient in terms of food production.
When Muammar Gaddafi and the Free Unitary Officers seized power in the coup of 1969, the new government immediately nationalised the oil companies.
They then used the revenues coming into Libya to drill hundreds of boreholes capable of bringing freshwater up from the underground basins.
Initially, the plan was to use this water in large-scale agricultural projects across the south. Repurposing areas of desert for farming would provide Libya with the food it needed to feed the nation.
There was a problem, however. Those who would need to relocate from their homes in the north were reluctant to move to the south.
Gaddafi therefore decided that rather than have the people move to the water, he would bring the water to the people via a vast network of pipelines – the Great Man Made River.
Over 4,000 kilometres of pipes were to cultivate 155,000 hectares of land. Not only that, but the decision to bring freshwater to the north meant connecting the homes and workplaces of the 80 percent living on the Mediterranean to the new water network.
When the idea of the Great Man Made River was conceived, Gaddafi described it as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” Much of the western world took a different view, saying that extracting fossil-water and transporting it thousands of kilometres was nothing more than a vanity exercise.
And yet it worked. At its height, the Great Mad Made River was the largest civil engineering project in the world, fully funded through sales of Libyan oil and government investment.
Construction on the first stage began in 1983 when hundreds of wells were drilled into two of the basins, Tazirbu and Sarir. Some of these wells pumped water up from a depth of 500 metres.
Underground pipelines carried water from both basins to a holding reservoir at Ajdabiya. The reservoir received its first water in 1989 and pipelines to Surt in the west and Benghazi in the north were operational by 1991.
The total distance covered by stage one was 1,600 kilometres from the wells in the south to the two destination cities in the north. 2 million cubic metres could be transported per day through steel-reinforced prestressed concrete pipes with diameters as large as four metres.
Stage two of the Great Man Made River involved drilling three wells in the Jabal Nefusa region. From here, one pipeline carried water to Tarhuna. The other headed to Tripoli, delivering natural drinking water to the capital for the first time in 1996.
The second stage could carry up to 2.5 million cubic metres per day – half a million more than stage one. Only a fraction of this was needed to meet the drinking water requirements of the cities it served.
Adam Kuwairi was a senior figure in the Great Man Made River Authority. He told the BBC about the impact that readily available freshwater had on those living in Tripoli.
“The water changed lives. For the first time in our history, there was water in the tap for washing, shaving and showering. The quality of life is better now, and it has impacted on the whole country.”
Stage three of the Great Man Made River was split into two parts. The first added 700 kilometres of new pipelines to stage one, increasing the daily supply capacity of the initial pipe network.
The second part saw a new reservoir constructed for holding water in the Al Jaghbub Oasis near the border with Egypt. 500 kilometres of pipeline took freshwater from the reservoir into Tobruk.
Stage three was completed in 2009. Two further stages were planned. Stage four would see the extension of stage one west of Tripoli to Al-Zawiya and Zuwarah, connecting to new wells drilled in the Kufra region.
Both stage one and stage two would then be joined via a new pipeline installed in stage five. The total capacity of the Great Man Made River with all five phases completed would have been 6.5 million cubic metres of water per day, carried over 4,000 kilometres of pipeline.
Unfortunately, the final two stages were halted when the first Libyan civil war broke out in 2011. Since then, the pipeline has suffered neglect and breakdowns as infrastructure became ignored through both the first conflict and the second Libyan civil war, fought between 2014 and 2020.
An assessment of the Great Man Made River in 2019 revealed that 101 of 479 wells on stage one had been dismantled. This was largely driven by people dismantling well-heads to sell the copper they are made from.
For the system to ever run as effectively as it used to or indeed as Gaddafi intended, serious investment in water pipe repair in Libya will be needed over the coming years.
The civil war also highlighted one of the major pitfalls in relying on such a vast pipe network to transport vital water from one end of the country to the other.
Control of the pipeline can be used as a weapon of war. In May 2019, a station controlling the flow of water to Tripoli was seized by an armed group who cut off supplies to over two million people for two days in an attempt to secure the released of a detained relative.
The attack was condemned by the United Nations on humanitarian grounds. Concerns remain about further attacks or what would happen if the Great Man Made River is allowed to deteriorate further through either war or a lack of maintenance.
A 2019 report complied by the water authority in Libya warned of a “sudden, unexpected, uncontrollable and unprepared for shutdown of the main water pipeline system with catastrophic consequences as there is no viable alternative water supply system.”
UNICEF estimated that such a shutdown would deprive at least four million people of access to safe water. The likely results from such an incident include cholera, hepatitis A and diarrhoea – a major childhood killer.
The Great Man Made River of Libya remains one of the greatest engineering projects of the past 50 years. Before the uprising against Gaddafi, it had begun to transform the lives of Libyans.
Even after war, it is still making a difference. The hope must be that peace will come to Libya, the Great Man Made River will get the pipe repair and maintenance it needs, and that stages four and five might be completed to truly unlock the potential of the Eighth Wonder of the World.