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Peter Neill

Peter Neill

Libya: Oil and Water Mix?

Posted: 03/27/11 07:00 PM ET

Oil, of course, remains a key element in the fight for control of Libya. Via pipeline and tanker distribution, Libya's oil resources supply a substantial part of the consumption in the United States and the European Union and are the major source of financial support for the Gadhafi regime. This primary aspect of the present and future national economy is vulnerable to the ongoing military battle for political control, war damage to lines, pumps, and port facilities, economic sanctions and naval blockades, and even vindictive sabotage by whoever plays the losing hand and wishes to leave behind a nation without any financial viability.

But what about water? One of the less well known projects undertaken by Gadhafi is "The Great Man-Made River Scheme," a huge technological plan to shift fresh water from ancient underground aquifers in the Hamada, Murzuq, and Kufra basins in the Sahara Desert to irrigate new remote agricultural harvest and provide ample supply to Tripoli, Benghazi, and the concentrated population along the Mediterranean coast. The project involves drilling hundreds of deep wells and 5000 kilometers of 4-meter diameter concrete piping that is designed eventually to convey north over six million cubic meters of water a day. This construction in the most stressful physical conditions has been performed by thousands of "foreign" workers, many of whom presumably are among the refugees now fleeing the country.

This exceptional underground reservoir is part of an ancient connected system that covers two million square kilometers, overlapping parts of Libya, Egypt, Chad, and Sudan -- the so-called Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System. This is "fossil" water, accumulated over millions of years, finite, marginally rechargeable, thus non-renewable, and not an active part of the surrounding hydrological cycle that has provided limited groundwater for expanding use and demand by growing population.

The Great Man-Made River Authority was created in 1983. The first water was delivered to the capital, Tripoli, in 1996 at a ceremony reportedly attended by Louis Farrakhan who described the accomplishment as "another miracle in the desert." The cost of the project has been estimated at US$25 billion.

In December 1997, the NY Times reported on the project under the headline "Mysterious Libyan Pipeline Could Be Conduit for Troops." Journalist Raymond Bonner quoted from interviews with engineers working on the project that the official explanation was "improbable or incomplete" and might have some "clandestine military purpose" as the tunnels stretching from Tunisia to Egypt could accommodate in reinforced concrete shelter, hidden from satellite surveillance, troops, supplies, and storage for ammunition, chemical and biological weapons.

The article also went on to report that much of the construction equipment in use for the project -- earth moving machines, well-drilling rigs, engines, generators, and cementing units and chemicals -- was American-made, perhaps unexpected as direct sales of such things were then prohibited by US sanctions, unless of course they were made through an intermediate entity from the European Union that did not bar such commercial trade. According to the Times report, Brown and Root, the Houston construction company, later sold to Halliburton, had performed the original feasibility studies for the project in 1984 and was then still the project manager, although had shifted the project to its London office after US sanctions were imposed. All the US companies mentioned asserted that they had met all legal requirements; the US Treasury asserted that no export permits had been granted; and yet the equipment was there.

Suffice it to say that these accounts present two contradictory profiles of a remarkable endeavor. One wonders if any of it is real? Or if suddenly this will become a strategic military element in a civil war? Or if just as suddenly bountiful fresh water will flow to quench the anger and turn the desert green and peaceful? What a strange story. What a strange question: in Libya, how will the politics of oil and water mix?