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The Great Man-made River Project: Libya’s achievement and Nato’s war crimes

Work on trench digging for a waterpipe in Libya's Great Man-made River project, 1988

Work on trench digging for a waterpipe in Libya's Great Man-made River project, 1988

By Frances Thomas, via Uruknet

September 1st is the anniversary of an event little known in the West. Today, 20 years on, the people who deserve to be celebrating it are instead enduring a war. Yet the achievement changed their lives greatly and merits recognition.

A tap was turned on in Libya. From an enormous ancient aquifer, deep below the Sahara Desert, fresh water began to flow north through 1,200km of pipeline to the coastal areas where 90 percent of Libyan people live, delivering around 1m cubic metres of pure water per day to the cities of Benghazi and Sirte.

Crowds gathered in the desert for the inaugural ceremony. Phase I of the largest civil engineering venture in the world, the Great Man-made River Project, had been completed.

It was during the 1953 search for new oilfields in southern Libya that the ancient water aquifers were first discovered: four huge basins with estimated capacities each ranging between 4,800 and 20,000 cubic kms. Yes, that’s cubic kilometres. There is so much water that Libya had recently also offered it to Egypt for their needs.

After the bloodless revolution of 1969, also on 1 September, the new government nationalised the oil companies and spent much of the oil revenues on harnessing the supply of fresh water from the desert aquifers by putting in hundreds of bore wells.

Muammar Gaddafi’s dream was to provide fresh water for everyone, and to turn the desert green, making Libya self-sufficient in food production. He established large farms and encouraged the people to move to the desert. But many preferred life on the coast and wouldn’t go.

So Gaddafi next conceived a plan to bring the water to the people. Feasibility studies were carried out by the Libyan government in the 1970s, and in 1983 the Great Manmade River Authority was set up. The project began the following year, fully funded by the Libyan government.

The almost $30bn cost to date has been without the need of any international loans. Nor has there been any charge on the people, who do not pay for their reticulated water, which is regarded in Libya to be a human right and therefore free.

GMMRP figures are staggering. The ‘rivers’ are a 4,000km network of 4m diameter lined concrete pipes, buried below the desert sands to prevent evaporation. There are 1,300 wells, 500,000 sections of pipe, 3,700km of haul roads, and 250m cubic metres of excavation. All material for the project was locally manufactured.

Large reservoirs provide storage, and pumping stations control the flow into the cities. The pipeline first reached Tripoli in 1996, and when Phase V is completed, the water will allow about 155,000 hectares of land to be cultivated.

To achieve all this, construction work was tendered and many overseas companies, including from the US, Korea, Turkey, Britain, Japan and Germany, took up contracts for each phase, and some have worked for decades in Libya.

The project has not been without problems, including faulty materials and financial difficulties within some of the contracting firms. Since the Nato air attacks on Libya began in March, most foreign nationals have returned home, including those employed on the hydro scheme. The final phase of the Great Man-made River Project is stalled.

Libyan people put their hearts into work on the GMMR from the beginning, and years ago took on most of the managerial and technical positions as their expert knowledge increased, with government policy encouraging their education, training and employment. They proudly call the GMMRP the “eighth wonder of the world”.

(UN Human Development Index figures for Libya since the beginning of Gaddafi’s leadership can be found here http://bit.ly/b4ItsI)

The project was so well recognised internationally that UNESCO in 1999 accepted Libya’s offer to fund an award named after it, the Great Man-Made River International Water Prize, the purpose of which is to “reward remarkable scientific research work on water usage in arid areas“. http://bit.ly/rnxiCf

Gaddafi was often ridiculed in the West for persevering with such an ambitious project. Pejorative terms such ‘pipe dream’, ‘pet project’ and ‘mad dog’ appeared in UK and US media. Despite a certain amount of awe for the enormity of the construction, the Great Man-made River was often dismissed as a ‘vanity project’ and then rarely mentioned in western media.

But the truth is that it’s a world-class water delivery system, and often visited by overseas engineers and planners wanting to learn from Libyan expertise in water transfer hydro-engineering.

On 22 July this year, four months into the air strikes to “protect civilians”, Nato forces hit the GMMR water supply pipeline. For good measure the following day, Nato destroyed the factory near Brega that produces the pipes to repair it, killing six guards there.

Nato air strikes on the electricity supply, as well as depriving civilians of electricity, mean that water pumping stations are no longer operating in areas even where the pipelines remain intact. Water supply for the 70 percent of the population who depend on the piped supply has been compromised with this damage to Libya’s vital infrastructure.

Oh, and by the way, attacking essential civilian infrastructure is a war crime.

Today in Sirte, which along with Benghazi was one of the first two cities to receive the water, there should be a celebration to mark the 20 years since fresh reticulated water first came to their city, and Gaddafi’s vision should be honoured.

But today Sirte is encircled by the rebels, and right now is being carpet bombed by Nato. The civilians are terrorised, and many families have tried to flee, but the rebels block all the exits. They kill the men, and send the women and children back into the city to be bombed. In the media the rebels are reported to have given Sirte until Saturday to surrender before they commence a full attack. But that’s not what’s happening really.

1 September 2011 will be remembered in history for Nato’s complicity in the massacre of the people of Sirte.

Back in 1991, at the gala opening of GMMRP Phase I, and maybe recalling the 1986 bombing of his home (which was carried out by US military on Reagan’s orders), Muammar Gaddafi spoke these words to the invited international dignitaries and assembled crowd:

“After this achievement, American threats against Libya will double … The United States will make excuses, (but) the real reason is to stop this achievement, to keep the people of Libya oppressed.”

His words were prophetic.

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