Cairo - Libya’s enormous aquatic reserves could potentially become a new weapon of choice if government forces opt to starve coastal cities that heavily rely on free flowing freshwater.
With only five percent of the country getting at least 100 millimetres of rainfall per year, Libya is one of the driest countries in the world.
Historically, coastal aquifers or desalination plants located in Tripoli were of poor quality due to contamination with salt water, resulting in undrinkable water in many cities including Benghazi.
Oil exploration in the southern Libyan desert in the mid-1950s revealed vast quantities of fresh, clean groundwater - this could meet growing national demand and development goals.
Scientists estimate that nearly 40,000 years ago when the North African climate was temperate, rainwater in Libya seeped underground forming reservoirs of freshwater.
In 1983, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi initiated a huge civil water works project known as the Great Man-Made River (GMMR) - a massive irrigation project that drew upon the underground basin reserves of the Kufra, Sirte, Morzuk, Hamada and the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer - to deliver more than five million cubic metres of water per day to cities along Libya’s coastal belt.
"The Colonel’s GMMR project was discounted when first unveiled as an uneconomic flight of fancy and a wasteful exploitation of un-renewable freshwater reserves," Middle East-based journalist Iason Athanasiadis told IPS. "But subsequently it was hailed as a masterful work of engineering, tapping into underground aquifers so vast that they could keep the 2007 rate of dispersal going for the next 1,000 years."
Lying beneath the four African countries Chad, Egypt, Libya and Sudan, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS) is the world’s largest fossil water aquifer system, covering some two million square kilometres and estimated to contain 150,000 cubic kilometres of groundwater.
Fossil water is groundwater that has been trapped in underground fossil aquifers for thousands or even millions of years. Unlike most aquifers the NSAS is a non-renewable resource, and over extraction or water mining could cause rising sea levels.
"The GMMR provides 70 percent of the population with water for drinking and irrigation, pumping it from Libya’s vast underground aquifers like the NSAS in the south to populated coastal areas 4,000 kilometres to the north," Ivan Ivekovic, professor of political science at the American University of Cairo told IPS.
"The entire project was drawn out over five phases. Phase one took water from eastern pipelines in As- Sarir and Tazerbo to Benghazi and Sirte; phase two supplied water in Tripoli and western pipelines in Jeffara from the Fezzan region; and phase three intended to create an integrated system and increase the total daily capacity to almost four million cubic metres and provide up to 138,000 cubic metres per day to Tobruk."
With an estimated cost of nearly 30 billion dollars, the GMMR’s network of nearly 5,000 kilometres of pipeline from more than 1,300 wells drilled up to 500 metres deep into the Sahara was also intended to increase the amount of arable land for agricultural production.
"Libya could start an agro-business similar to California’s San Joaquin Valley. Like Libya, California is essentially desert but because of irrigation and water works projects that desert valley became the largest producer of food and cotton in the world, making it the ninth largest economy in the world," Patrick Henningsen, 21st Century Wire editor and founder, told IPS.
"At the moment the only agro-markets in the Mediterranean zone competing to supply citrus and various other popular supermarket products to Europe are Israel and Egypt. In 10 or 20 years, Libya could surpass both of those countries because they now have the water to green the desert."
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) water has created a growing regional crisis and could be an impetus for further unrest. Demand is increasing as populations skyrocket - reserves are rapidly depleting and food inflation has taken its toll on cash-strapped countries dependent on imported food staples.
"There are several elements to the Libyan mess. One of them is certainly water. I would highlight the issue by quoting similar situations in South and Central Asia," News Central Asia Editor Tariq Saeedi told IPS.
"Kashmir is understood to be the cause of rift between India and Pakistan but actually it’s the water of three rivers - Ravi, Sutlej and Beas - that originate from upper Kashmir that is the source of dispute.
"The Amudarya River that starts from Afghanistan and criss-crosses between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before terminating at Aral Sea is another example. The ability of this river to trigger a conflict in Central Asia will rise proportionately with the ability of Afghanistan to use more water from Amudarya for its own use.
"In a nutshell, whoever controls NSAS, controls the economies, foreign policies and destinies of several countries in the region, not just north-eastern Africa," explains Saeedi.
Last month, Libyan officials warned that NATO airstrikes on the GMMR’s pipelines could cause a humanitarian and environmental disaster. But pro-government forces could also disrupt the GMMR’s flow if they wish, leaving opposition-held regions in the east with only the Ajdabiya reservoir - this holds just a month’s supply of water.
"Pure freshwater from the south must continue being pumped because without it Benghazi would die," says Ivekovic. "The water pipelines run parallel to the oil and gas pipelines and it’s interesting that with most of the fighting happening around the areas of Ajdabiya, Sirte and Benghazi that none of these pipes have yet been damaged.
"In a desertifying region already wracked by water conflict, Libya's enormous aquatic reserves will be a large prize for whoever gets the upper hand in this struggle," says Athanasiadis.