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Great Manmade River, Libya


Libya’s population growth and situation of severe drought has put a great strain on its water supply, especially since it does not have a renewable water source, relying largely on groundwater to satisfy its water demand. In the 50s and 60s, vast quantities of fresh groundwater were discovered in aquifers in the deserts of Southern Libya during oil explorations. To make up for the gap in its traditional supplies, the Libyan government, headed by Gaddafi, undertook the largest civil engineering project in the world, popularly known as The Great Man Made River Project (GMMR), to green the northern deserts of Libya. Gaddafi claimed that he would make the desert “as green as the flag of the Libyan Jamahiriya.” [1]. The aim of the project was to supply water for agriculture as well as for municipal and industrial purposes from “fossil” water collected over 35,000 years ago in the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. This was done through the construction of an underground network of pipes which would transport water from the Southern deserts to the northern cities of Libya. Initial feasibility studies were conducted in 1974, and construction works commenced in 1984. Evaluation and tenders for the detailed design was completed in 2005. 80% of the water provided by the project was to be used for agricultural purposes. For example, the town of Abu Shieba, located in the west of Libya, had 700HA of agricultural land before the project. After water from the project reached the town, agricultural lands increased to 1600 HA and the number of farmers increased from 117 to 305. Water intensive crops were also planted after the project, such as corn, peanuts, and vegetables such as cauliflower and cabbage, as well as fruits such as oranges and grapes, thus increasing the income of farmers. The purpose of the project was to make Libya independent from imports from foreign markets by producing enough water to meet its municipal, industrial, and agricultural needs. Gaddafi had planned that land will be given to small farmers to grow produce for the domestic market. Large farms would also be established to grow crops that Libya imported. The project could also allow Libya to start an agro-business similar to the San Joaquin Valley in California, a desert valley that became one of the largest producers in the world due to irrigation works. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi called it the '8th wonder of the world', and the water delivery system positively changed the lives of Libyans across the country. During the first phase of the project in 1991, Gaddafi is quoted as saying: “After this achievement, American threats against Libya will double. The United States will make excuses, but the real reason is to stop this achievement, to keep the people of Libya oppressed.” [6] 

Environmental impacts should generally be assessed before a major project is started. Libyan law demands that this must be done. But it did not happen in the case of the GMMR, as Khalifa Elawej, an advisor to the General Board of Environment, points out. The political decision to start was taken in view of an “acute shortage of water”. At the time, the cost of fossil water was only a tenth of that of desalinated water. To date, no environmental impact assessment has been done. [8] According to Elawej, it is impossible to give an accurate account of the environmental effects because relevant data are unavailable. Lots of research would be needed. However, some impacts are obvious, he says. Positive impacts include: The GMMR has helped to expand the green areas in the north and west of the country, stemming further desertification. The green areas contribute to tempering the weather. Traditional water resources in the north have been spared as people can now rely on GMMR water instead. Agricultural production has increased. There are downsides too, according to Elawej. The desert environment of the areas where the fossil water is taken from may be changing. The pipeline network itself may affect the environment. Some of the water is stored in open pools, and evaporation leads to salinization. Salinity of the GMMR water is high according to international standards, though it is not as bad as in the north’s traditional wells, which are affected by an influx of seawater. Since most – and perhaps all – of the fossil water is not renewable, limited resources are being used. In a largely controversial move, in July 2011 NATO planes bombed a water supply pipeline at Brega, as well as a Concrete Cylinder Pipe factory, killing six security guards in the process and jeopardizing the water supply of 70% of the population. The factory was built especially for the project, and was key in sustaining the water supply, being equipped to repair leaks and breaks in the system. NATO justified the bombing by claiming that it has evidence the factory was being used as a “military storage facility” and that “rockets were launched from there.” [6] Meanwhile, the GMMR team and managers (loyal to Gaddafi) labeled the bombing of the factory and surrounding infrastructure a crime that threatens the water supply of millions of Libyan citizens. Libyan officials had warned two months before, in May 2011, that NATO airstrikes on the GMMR’s pipelines would cause a humanitarian and environmental disaster. When asked for evidence of military installations in the factory, NATO officials provided satellite images that confirm BM-21 rocket launchers near the facility, which were intact after the bombing. The damage to the facility water not serious enough to completely stop the flow of water in the ‘river’. A few months earlier, NATO also bombed water facilities in Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, killing nine state employees who were working during the attack. [5] UN officials reported that if the project is to fail, a massive humanitarian emergency will be caused in Libya. [6] Targeting of essential civilian infrastructure is a war crime under the Geneva convention and, according to Nafeez Ahmed, a deliberate “genocidal strategy” in Libya. [6] A month after the NATO bombing of the GMMR, around half of Libya’s population was without running water. In addition, the bombardment caused a huge number of foreign employees working on the project to flee the country. Later in the same year, UNICEF reported that power cuts and fuel shortages were threatening the functioning of the GMMR by impeding the operation of the water-pumping stations. Such power cuts mean that Libyan citizens, particularly those in Tripoli and Benghazi, have to go without water for 8 or more hours a day. At the time of the UNICEF report, which confirmed that pro-Gaddafi officials were not sabotaging water facilities (as claimed by pro-rebel forces), 4 million Libyans had been left without potable water. [6] It warned that if the situation worsens, it can turn into a serious health epidemic. Agricultural areas dependent on the GMR were also affected. The whole project could collapse if the chaos in Libya continues, causing a water crisis that could affect millions of people. Meanwhile, pro-rebel sources have claimed that pro-Gaddafi officials shut down the supply system as a strategy to win the war. 

As reported by Kieran Cooke of Middle East Eye, on 28 December 2016, the political and economic chaos in Libya does not allow the collection of reliable and accurate data on the current situation of the GMMR. It is unclear what priority level will be set by the new government to the GMMR, but it is clear that the project can’t be abandoned completely, especially without an alternative water production strategy. Some have claimed that the war in Libya today is caused by disputes over water, and have dubbed the war in Libya “water wars”. As one commentator quoted in the Guardian has said: “whoever controls the NSAS [Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System] controls the economies, foreign policies and destinies of several countries in the region, not just north-eastern Africa.” [2] Another journalist is quoted as saying: “Libya’s enormous aquatic reserves will be a large prize for whoever gets the upper hand in this struggle.” [2]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Great Manmade River, Libya

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Interbasin water transfers/transboundary water conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Water

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Libya is located in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world and suffers from intense water shortage and poor water management. It is one of the driest countries in the world, with more than 90% of it desert land.

The project started in 1984 and was scheduled to be completed in 25 years. Feasibility studies showed that the GMMR project was more cost-effective compared to three other options of providing Libya with water: importing water by ships, desalination of seawater, or laying a pipeline from Europe.

After completion, it was projected to provide 6,500,000 cubic meters of freshwater per day from aquifers beneath the Sahara to the Northern cities of Libya bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, along a network of gigantic underground pipes. Around 6.5 million people live along Libya's Mediterranean coast, constituting around 70% of Libya's population. Coastal aquifers providing the northern cities with water have either dried or become unusable due to saltwater intrusion. Old desalination plants are in need of repair. [4]

The water comes from the South of the country, from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, the largest fossil water aquifer in the world, covering an area of around two million square kilometers. The giant aquifer spans territories in Southern Libya, Sudan, Egypt, and Chad. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer includes four freshwater basins within the borders of Libya that contain around 12,000 cubic kilometers of fossil water from the ice age buried as deep as 600 meters underground.

80% of the water provided by the GMMR would be dedicated to agriculture, and the remaining 20% to municipal and industrial use. After completion, irrigation water from the project would enable the cultivation of 160,000 HA of land.

The project was designed in five phases, largely separate in their design but making an integrated system in the end. It involved digging around 1,300 wells, some up to 600 meters deep. The project also involved constructing reservoirs and pumping stations.

The total length of the concrete pipelines is around 4,000 km with a 4m radius.

In 1983, the Great Man-Made River Authority was created by law No. 11/1983 by the general people's congress to implement and manage the GMMR project.

- The first phase of the project was inaugurated in 1991 and completed in 1996. This system supplies 2,000,000 cubic meters of water per day to Benghazi, the second-largest city in Libya, as well as Sirte, previously Gaddafi's stronghold.

- The second phase finished in September 2000, supplying one million cubic meters of water a day to Tripoli and Jeffara.

- The aim of the third phase was to expand phase I and increase the water provided by phase I by 1.68 million cubic meters per day, inaugurated by Gaddafi in 2010. It also provided water to Tobruk

- Phases 4 and 5 of the project are on halt due to the conflict in Libya. They involved extending the distribution network and integrating the Eastern and Western networks into a single system.

There are four major underground basins to provide the water resource:

1. The Kufra basin: in the Southeast near the Egyptian border, covering an area of 350,000 square kilometers, forming an aquifer of 2000 m deep and a capacity of 20,000 km squared within Libyan borders

2. Sirte basin: 600 m deep, holding an estimated of 10,000 km squared of water

3. Murzuk basin: south of Jabal Fezzan, 450,000 km squared, estimated to hold 4,800 Km cubes of water.

4. Hamadah and Kufrah basins: south of Libya

One problem with the GMMR is that the underground water is not renewable. Although Gaddafi's officials have claimed there is enough underground water to last 4,625 years according to current demand, others have warned that the water might run out within a 100 years [1]. Others have estimated that the water will be exhausted in 50 years. [2]

The Great Man-Made Rive Water Utilization Authority is responsible for the use of the water for agricultural purposes. Fees are highly subsidized for farmers (0.62$/cubic meter), and modern drip irrigation techniques are used to minimize water waste.

The Secretariat of Municipalities is responsible for the water distribution to cities. More than 30% of the municipal water demand is provided by this project.

2% of the water is used for industrial purposes, mainly for the oil industry.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) water resources program, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have undertaken the joint Nubian Aquifer Project, the goal of which is to establish equitable management of the water resource between the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS) both for sustainable economic development of the relevant countries and the protection of biodiversity and land resources. It is one of the first international transboundary aquifer water projects. [4]

Level of Investment for the conflictive project27,000,000,000
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:4,000,000
Company names or state enterprises:Dong Ah Contruction from Republic of Korea
ENKA from Turkey
Relevant government actors:Great Man-made River Authority

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Opponents of NATO's intervention in Libya
Forms of mobilization:Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage)
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Infectious diseases, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Increase in violence and crime, Specific impacts on women


Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Proposal and development of alternatives:From one side, the relevant impact assessment studies should be undertaken to know the potential damages the GMMR has caused since its construction began.
On the other hand, the population is demanding regular access to safe drinking water meaning that the government should undertake to provide this service.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Environmental impacts should generally be assessed before a major project is started. Libyan law demands that this must be done. But it did not happen in the case of the GMMR, as Khalifa Elawej, an advisor to the General Board of Environment, points out. The political decision to start was taken in view of an “acute shortage of water”. At the time, the cost of fossil water was only a tenth of that of desalinated water. To date, no environmental impact assessment has been done.
In addition, as of today, the new Libyan government has been unable to undertake to required reparations and maintenance works required to keep the GMMR functional and able to provide water regularly to the Libyan people.

Sources & Materials

[1] - Libya's thirst for 'fossil water' - BBC

[2] - Trouble ahead for Gaddafi's Great Man-Made River - Middle-East Eye

[3] - Leak in main pipeline of water desalination plant may cut water supply in Tobruk, official warns - The Libya Observer

[4] - Libya’s “Water Wars” and Gaddafi`s Great Man-Made River Project - Global Research

[5] - The Great Man-Made River of Gaddafi: What Happened To It? - AnonHQ

[6] - NATO bombs the Great Man-Made River - Human Rights Investigations

[7] - GMR (Great Man-Made River) Water Supply Project

[8] - Freshwater from the desert - Development and Cooperation

Meta information

Contributor:Christophe Maroun - [email protected]
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:3317



Transport of Pipes

Fleet of more than one hundred transporters has altogether travelled a distance equal to the distance between the Earth and Sun. Credit: Green Prophet

Arrival of Water

The arrival ceremony of water from the Great Man Made River project to Ghiryan, south to the city of Tripoli in August, 2007 (AFP)

Phases of the Project

Schematic drawing of the project

Protest Against U.S. Military Action in Libya - Minneapolis, Minnesota - March 21, 2011

This was a protest against United States military operations in Libya that started March 19. This was organized by Women Against Military Madness and the Anti-War Committee.