TO the astonishment of some and the dismay of others, "the great man-made river" flows in Libya.
The "river" is a giant pipeline 560 miles long and 13 feet in diameter that transports water from wells south in the Sahara to the parched populations of the Cyrenaica and Benghazi regions in northeastern Libya.
The $8 billion project is the idea of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. He dubs it the "world's largest civil-engineering project" - hyperbole that is not too far from truth. And his dream of "greening" his country's coastline - once dismissed as a Pharaonic scheme - is now a reality.
The project may portend real improvements in Libya's economy and help boost Colonel Qaddafi's credibility. Water is already flowing. And when a second pipeline is completed, the project's drain on Libya's cash - it has eaten more than 15 percent of national oil revenues - will stop.
Tripoli is next to be rescued from drought. The second pipeline project, drawing water from the Fezzan region to the south, is nearing the capital. At the construction camp a sign recently read "278 days to Tripoli."
"We're going to make it," the chief engineer says.
Phase 1, serving Cyrenaica, was completed three years ago, almost on schedule (both pipelines have been five-year projects with overlapping timetables). Potable water again flows in the region's cities, a luxury only older citizens can recall.
For Libyans, drinkable water has been in short supply. Economic growth and rapid population expansion outstripped the capacity of the few coastal wadis and aquifers that had supplied cities and farms. Overpumping depleted the sweet groundwater supplies. Saltwater had increasingly intruded into the coastal wells, and wells had to be drilled ever deeper. In Tripoli, spigots delivered salty water, or coughed and delivered none.
While the man-made river's cost is high, it is arguably lower than the alternatives. Stopgap solutions proved also expensive and burdensome. Some citizens bought trucked-in water, while others drilled private wells, competing for remaining sweet water. Hospitals, hotels, and institutions built their own desalination plants using a process known as reverse-osmosis to process the brackish well water. At most, supplying by pipeline costs about 50 cents per cubic meter, less than half the price of building more desalination plants.
The crews of Dong Ah, the Korean general contractor, are working long seven-day weeks to finish the last …