Hollywood could not have done it better.
Out of the pitch black night, deep in the desert of southern Libya, a line of fast moving car lights appears. Orange tracer bullets fired from AK47s arch across the sky. Women ululate, their pitched cries echoing up and down the sand dunes.
Then, out of the gloom, a lone white horse, with a phalanx of men in dark robes running alongside, flares in their hands. In the saddle – looking a little unsteady – is Muammar Gaddafi, a green cape on his shoulders, a small red round hat perched on top of his thick nest of hair.
The chanting from the bussed-in crowd grows more fervent. There is a moment of embarrassment as one of the high Cuban heels on Gaddafi’s American-style cowboy boots becomes stuck in a stirrup.
Libya's water supplies under threat
It was mid-1987 and the then all-powerful Libyan leader was deep in the desert inaugurating another phase of his multi-billion dollar scheme to turn the deserts of northern Libya green – the Great Man-Made River Project (GMR).
We – a small group of journalists allowed into the country – had been roused from our hotel beds in Tripoli at 1am and ushered into a bus with blacked out windows. No explanations, no hint of where we were going.
“Hey, this is fun,” says the ever enthusiastic CNN camera woman. “Maybe we’re off to an oasis for breakfast.”
Gaddafi does not address the crowd, but paces back and forth, waving like an actor determined to soak up the adulation till the very last clap fades away.
There is the rumble of heavy machinery.
“Do you think they are tanks?" asks the camera woman excitedly. “Maybe there’s going to be a battle.”
The machines are giant trucks and fork lifts – all driven by Koreans. Sections of giant pipe are manoeuvred into trenches. A bagpipe band, complete with kilts, wheezes into life, playing an uncertain tune.
The atmosphere becomes increasingly surreal. The leader’s white horse, now rider-less, gallops past, disappearing into the night.
Gaddafi reappears, having undergone a costume change: he is now in what appears to be a space suit.
A line of limousines pulls up, all identical. The leader gives one last wave. The Koreans bow. There is more ululating, more AK47 firing.
“What a show,” says the camera woman. “Wait till they see this back in Atlanta.”
Gaddafi reappears, having undergone a costume change: he is now in what appears to be a space suit
Of course, Gaddafi is no more. The bagpipe band has likely blown its last. The Koreans worked on for some years but then their Dong Ah Construction company, which won the lion’s share of early GMR contracts, went bankrupt and they returned home.
The American camera woman, when last heard of, was running a yoga centre in Oregon.
Yet the GMR 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.
The arrival ceremony of water from the Great Man Made River project to Ghiryan, south to the city of Tripoli in August, 2007 (AFP)
The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer
The idea behind the GMR – first mooted in the 1950s – was simple on paper, highly complex in reality.
Libya is one of the driest countries on earth, with more than 90 percent of its land desert. But deep under the sand in the south of the country is what’s known as the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System – the world’s largest aquifer - a vast fresh water lake covering an area of more than two million square kilometres.
Boasting that the GMR would make the “desert as green as the flag of the Libyan Jamahiriya,” Gaddafi embarked on the giant scheme in 1983, drilling down to tap the aquifer’s abundant waters.
Though many governments dismissed the project as one of Gaddafi’s flights of fancy, foreign companies – from the US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Turkey, Brazil and Canada - rushed to grab a slice of what was described at the time as the biggest engineering project in the world.
Libya is one of the driest countries on earth, with more than 90 percent of its land desert
Since Gaddafi’s fall, there have been allegations of multi-million dollar bribes being paid to Libyan officials in exchange for participation in the scheme.
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 – now a hotbed of Islamic State (IS) activity - was completed in 1991.
Gaddafi points towards the Gurdabiya Dam along with leaders from Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo and Nigeria, east of Sirte, March 2002 (AFP)
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.
The GMR was funded almost entirely out of Libyan oil sales funds: though a substantial amount of equipment was imported – particularly from South Korea during the initial phases of the project – the hundreds of thousands of pipes needed for the scheme were all manufactured in Libya.
In what was seen as a highly controversial move, NATO planes – acting to support rebel forces battling Gaddffi’s army – bombed and destroyed one of two of the GMR’s pipe-making facilities at Brega in July 2011.
NATO said it had evidence that the plant was being used by Gaddafi’s forces as a military storage facility and that rockets were being fired from the site.
GMR managers, loyal to Gaddafi, said the destruction of the factory and surrounding infrastructure was a war crime, threatening water supplies to millions of Libyans.
NATO planes – acting to support rebel forces battling Gaddafi’s army – bombed and destroyed one of two of the GMR’s pipe making facilities at Brega in July 2011
Later in 2011 UNICEF reported that power cuts and fuel shortages were putting the GMR at risk.
At the same time there were reports that a lack of spare parts and chemicals was endangering the workings of the GMR.
Amid the violence and political and economic chaos that is still enveloping Libya, it is very difficult to find reliable, up-to-date information on the workings of the GMR.
The long-term fate of the GMR
What is clear is that chronic power shortages in most areas of the country are seriously impeding the operation of water -pumping stations and wells.
More than 90 percent of people in Libya – the population has doubled since the early 1980s – live in cities and towns on the coast. Coastal aquifers have either been drained dry or are being tainted by seawater intrusion.
Meanwhile power blackouts mean people in Libya’s two main cities – Tripoli and Benghazi – have to go without water for up to eight hours a day, sometimes longer.
Other parts of the country, including farming regions dependent on the GMR for irrigating crops, are similarly affected.
Meanwhile power blackouts mean people in Libya’s two main cities – Tripoli and Benghazi – have to go without water for up to eight hours a day, sometimes longer
There are broader concerns about the long-term fate of the GMR. Though there is a vast amount of water under the desert, it is not being replenished.
Gaddafi’s officials said there was enough water to last for several millennia; others warn it could be exhausted within 100 years.
The giant aquifer system in southern Libya crosses into the territory of Sudan, Egypt and Chad. Already there are reports of wells in Egypt running dry.
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.
- Kieran Cooke is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times, and continues to contribute to the BBC and a wide range of international newspapers and radio networks.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi walks along the shoreline of the Gurdabiya Dam, east of Sirte, which was a phase of Libya's 'Great Man-Made River' water project, on 7 March, 2002 (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.