The Great Libyan Man-Made River and the Albian Aquifer in the Maghreb

Are very large-scale construction projects always useful and advisable, both in terms of meeting the essential and food needs of populations at the micro-local level, and in terms of contributing to true sustainable development at the regional level, without further aggravating the factors that are globally responsible for climate deregulation?

The Great Man-Made River in Libya is based on the exploitation of a huge aquifer in the Maghreb called the Albian Aquifer. It was conceived especially for the irrigation of agricultural lands and for food self-sufficiency in Libya.

A bit of history

The early development of civilization in a large part of this region was based on irrigation systems that laid the foundations for the intensive production systems still in use today. Historical evidence indicates that in the Roman era, nearly all of North Africa received sufficient rainfall to allow regular rain-fed cultivation of grains and other crops. The climatic conditions and plant cover of the soil seem to have deteriorated since then…

The FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) observed that “historically, agriculture played an essential role in the development of many economies in the Middle East and North Africa; first with grain production and breeding, then with the development of fruit, vegetable and cash crop production in totally or partially irrigated areas. In 1997, agriculture made up 13 percent of the regional GDP, 19% of exports, and 50% of jobs in the region. However, there are great variations between countries depending on the relative importance of non-agricultural revenue in their economy. Water access, in terms of both quantity and quality, remains a major problem for national and agricultural economies. Many economies were obliged, by the relatively low potential for production increase in the absence of irrigation, to turn to other solutions for economic growth, such as oil, mining, manufacturing, international commerce, etc.”

This region was also an important area for agricultural innovation between the 4th and 11th centuries, when many new crops and technologies were introduced in the Far East.”

The experts at FAO also recalled that “patterns of land occupation depend on the history of political changes; populations increase in big cities and concentrate in the most important villages of rural areas. The region is home to many nomadic herders who move, according to the season, between the mountainous and low-altitude regions, and between the humid areas and the dry steppe. The long history of human settlement, unequal access to land and increasing urbanization has led to serious degradation of soils and forest resources throughout most of the region…”

The farming systems are highly varied and have been described and mapped. See production – Middle East and North Africa – Source of the excerpts above systems:…

The Albian Aquifer Today

The Albian aquifer is essentially of fossil origin, but with a small modern natural supply.

Libya’s economy has been shaken by the recent dramas in the country. The Great Man-Made River was a humongous project, realized over the course of several decades. The conflict in 2011 nearly compromised the expected optimal functioning of the river’s hydraulic developments, as well as the positive effects on the economy and the well-being of concerned populations.

A retrospective technical review of Moammar Gaddafi’s water program that was made in 2005 enables us to (re)discover the wealth, boldness, inherent difficulties of such a big project in the region.

The Algerian authorities articulated a plan to use various technologies (including geothermal energy) to stimulate subsistence agriculture as well as agricultural products for export; this plan also shed light on the potential for a future “recovered” Libya. But others have established a possibly risky connection between the exploitation of shale gas, and the resources of this aquifer, which has a depth between 500 and 800 meters, and an area greater than two times that of metropolitan France.

On a political level, the role of the Libyan state was already outlined in 2016. In 2012, the Algerian politician Abdelmalek Sellal announced the feasibility of an agreement on the Albian aquifer, for a just division and optimal usage of water between Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

This very large-scale project has been greatly supported by effective hydraulic engineering technologies, substantial financial allocations and firm political determination. What remains to be implemented to help local populations live better in peaceful, secure territories, are a technical reevaluation of the Great Man-Made River of Libya, a review considering the river in terms of sustainable development, and proactive inter-regional cooperation.

Translated from an article by Jacques Hallard


Further information:

The Official Great Man-Made River Website

“The GMR (Great Man-made River) project – with a price tag of at least $25bn – kept rolling along. By the time the uprising against Gaddafi started in early 2011, more than 70 percent of the work on the GMR was completed.

But with the chaos resulting from the ongoing civil war, the project and its web of infrastructure is under severe strain, threatening supplies of water to a majority of Libya’s 6.3 million people.”

Divided into five phases, the GMR involved sinking 1,300 wells, some up to 600 metres deep, down below the desert sands. Giant concrete pipes big enough for a bus to be driven through were sunk into trenches: altogether a water pipeline network covering 4,000kms was established.

Reservoirs were constructed. Numerous pumping stations were built. The first phase of the GMR, supplying water to Benghazi in the east of Libya and to Gaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte was completed in 1991.

Other phases of the project, supplying water to Tripoli in the west and Tobruk in the far east of the country, gradually came on stream.”

Gaddafi liked to claim that the GMR was ‘the eighth wonder of the world.’ It is in many ways a remarkable feat of engineering but the whole scheme could collapse if the mayhem in Libya continues – resulting in a chronic water crisis affecting millions of people.”

Trouble Ahead for Gaddafi’s Great Man-Made River (Middle East Eye)

“According to Elawej (Environment Advisor), it is impossible to give accurate report of the environmental effects [of the GMR], since no relevant data currently exists. This would entail a huge amount of research. Elawej regards the positive effects of the project as follows:

  1. The GMMR has helped expand the green areas in the north and west of the country, preventing further desertification.

  2. The green areas contribute to tempering the weather.

  3. Traditional water resources in the north have been spared as people can now rely on GMMR water instead.

  4. Agricultural production has increased.

According to Elawej, the negative effects include:

  1. The desert environment of the areas where the fossil water is taken from may be changing.

  2. The pipeline network itself may affect the environment.

  3. Some of the water is stored in open pools, with evaporation leading to salinisation. 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.

  4. Since most – and perhaps all – of the fossil water is not renewable, a finite resource is being used.

Over the course of the civil war, the GMMR has suffered severe damage. During the revolution in 2011, NATO airplanes bombed water ducts in Brega. They also targeted a pipe factory, possibly in order to cut off Gaddafi′s forces from their water supply. More recently, there have been acts of sabotage in the south. In March 2017, the GMMR administration issued a warning that repeated assaults on wells at JabalHasawna might completely stop the water flow to Tripoli and other north-western cities.”

The Eighth Wonder of the World? (Qantara)

Survey of Sustainable Development to Make Great Man-Made River Producing Energy and Food (Current World Environment Paper)

Libya’s choices: Desalination or the Great Man-made River Project (Paper on Sciencedirect)

The Libyan Great Man-Made River Project, Paper 1, Project Overview. (Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Water Maritime and Energy)

The Libyan Great Man-Made River Project, Paper 2, The Water Resource. (Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Water Maritime and Energy)

Freshwater from the Desert (D+C Article)

The Great Man-Made River of Gaddafi: What Happened To It? (Anonymous HQ Article)

A technical overview of the GMR project prior to NATO’s intervention

The Great Man-Made River of Libya (Amusing Planet Article)