Magazine article New African

Libya's 'Eighth Wonder of the World': A Lot of Billions of US Dollars Have Been Sunk into the Libyan Desert since 1984 to Create a Man-Made River That Provides the Country with Much-Needed Water. Larry Luxner Reports on What the Libyan Leader, Muammar AlGathafi, Calls the "Eighth Wonder of the World", a Project without Which the Country Would Be in Dire Trouble

Magazine article New African

Libya's 'Eighth Wonder of the World': A Lot of Billions of US Dollars Have Been Sunk into the Libyan Desert since 1984 to Create a Man-Made River That Provides the Country with Much-Needed Water. Larry Luxner Reports on What the Libyan Leader, Muammar AlGathafi, Calls the "Eighth Wonder of the World", a Project without Which the Country Would Be in Dire Trouble

Article excerpt

FROM THE .SKY, LIBYA'S GRAND Omar Mukhtar Reservoir resembles a shimmering blue circle nestled in the desert sands. At ground level, the artificial lake is so vast that it is impossible to photograph the whole structure with anything but a fisheye lens.

In fact, it takes a good 10 minutes to drive around the reservoir's 3.5 km perimeter gravel road. Holding 24 million cubic metres of water, Omar Mukhtar is the second-largest reservoir in the world--and a crucial element in Libya's ambitious $20bn Great Man-Made River (GMMR) project. It does not involve a river in the normal sense, but an aquifer--a saturated region of the subsurface where water can be accessed via wells or springs. It is all underground, deep under the Sahara Desert. "Before the implementation of the GMMR, the Libyan people were desperate for a few drops of water throughout the year," says a government brochure describing the project. "Now, with a daily flow of over six million cubic metres, there is enough water to supply each citizen in the Great Jamahiriya with over 1,000 litres per day. In addition, 135,000 hectares of land will be freed from drought."

The GMMR ranks easily as the largest and most expensive irrigation project in world history. Conceived in the late 1960s, its mission is simple: to pump water from Libya's vast, underground Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System in the south to populated coastal ateas in the north where most of the country's six million inhabitants live and work.

Phase I of the GMMR, with a price tag of $5.5bn, commenced in 1984 and since 1991 has transported two million cubic metres of water daily from the immense Sarir and Tazerbo basins to the coastal strip between Sirte and Benghazi, 1200 km north.

Phase II, costing just over $8bn, carries 2.5 million cubic metres per day from the Murzuq Basin, feeding the cities between Sirte and Tripoli, Libya's capital, which received its first supplies of GMMR water in September 1996.

Following the completion of Phase II, a third phase--estimated to cost $6 bn--was built to connect the two existing networks. Total production of the GMMR comes to 6.43 million cubic metres a day, using 1,149 production wells, most of them more than 500 metres deep.

Over the next 50 years, according to the quality control manager Salim ah Hawari, the cumulative investment will hit $33.7bn, with total production of 120 billion cubic metres of water.

Without the GMMR, it is evident that Libya would soon face a crisis of enormous proportions. According to the UNDP, available renewable water per person in Libya is expected to drop from the 1955 benchmark of 4,103 cubic metres annually to only 332 cubic metres by 2025.

Al-Hawari dismisses concerns by environmentalists that the water in the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System--which accumulated during the last ice age--may actually run out within half a century at present rates of consumption.

To put things into perspective, the total quantity of cement used to build the GMMR is enough to build a concrete road from Tripoli to Sydney, Australia. If superimposed on a map of the United States, the GMMR--which Col. Muammar Al Gathafi has called the "eighth wonder of the world"--would easily stretch from Louisiana to western New Mexico and up into northern Colorado.

Despite its massive cost, civil engineer Abdulmajid M. Elgaoud said Libya had no other alternative. …

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