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
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
The crews of Dong Ah, the Korean general contractor, are working
long seven-day weeks to finish the last section of the western leg
of the system. …