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September 19, 2010

Libya taps 'fossil water' to irrigate desert farms

by Sarah A. Topol

In the middle of the Libyan Desert’s scorched yellow sands, rows of green grapes dangle off vines; almond trees blossom in neat lines, and pear tree orchards stretch into the distance.

Libya is one of the driest countries on Earth, bereft of rivers, lakes, and rain. But here the desert is blooming.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the quest to turn thousands of miles of desert into arable land has taken a backseat to containing an impending water shortage. While many countries in the region bicker over water rights, Libya has taken it upon itself to change its topography – turning sand into soil.

The Great Man-Made River, which is leader Muammar Qaddafi's ambitious answer to the country’s water problems, irrigates Libya’s large desert farms. The 2,333-mile network of pipes ferry water from four major underground aquifers in southern Libya to the northern population centers. Wells punctuate the water’s path, allowing farmers to utilize the water network in their fields.

The Libyan government says the 26-year project has cost $19.58 billion. Nearing completion, the Great Man-Made River is the largest irrigation project in the world and the government says it intends to use it to develop 160,000 hectares (395,000 acres) of farmland. It is also the cheapest available option to irrigate fields in the water-scarce country, which has an average annual rainfall of about one inch.

“Rainfall is just concentrated in 5 percent of the [country’s] area, so more or less, 95 percent or 90 percent of our land is desert,” says Abdul Magid al-Kaot, minister of agriculture, during a PowerPoint presentation that accompanied a recent several-hour government tour of the project and farms outside the capital of Tripoli. “Water is more precious for us than oil. ... Water here in Libya, it’s life.”

Just as Libya mines the desert for crude; they are doing the same for ‘fossil water’ – ice age water preserved in the porous holes of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. The massive aquifer stretches under Libya, Egypt, Chad, and Sudan. It includes four freshwater basins inside Libya that contain approximately 10,000 to 12,000 cubic kilometers (480 cubic miles) of ancient water buried as deep as 600 meters (2,000 feet) below the surface of the desert, reporters were told during the government presentation.

Libya moves the precious resource from the ground to five giant above-ground reservoirs through pre-stressed concrete pipes, weighing 75-86 tons, that run 20 feet underground. Cranes weighing 450 tons operated on specially constructed roads to install the mammoth cylinders.

Other countries also drill for underground water, but none do so as intensely as Libya. The country is pulling up 2.5 million cubic meters per day, with the expectation of eventually pumping 6.5 million. Experts liken the project to moving 2.5 million Volkswagen Beetles more than 2000 miles every day – one car weighs roughly the same as a cubic meter of water, which is 2200 pounds.

New drip irrigation techniques are being used to ensure water does not go to waste. More than 70 percent of the water is intended for subsided domestic agriculture, with the rest for citizen consumption. None is reserved for heavy industry, according to the government.

Although it is cheaper for Libya to pump the underground water than use desalination or import the substance, experts are wary of Libya’s decision to irrigate large scale farms with fossil water.

“For Libya this is pretty expensive water. It’s not as expensive as desalinated water, but to irrigate with it is probably not cost effective at the purest sense,” says Aaron Wolf, professor and chair of the department of Geosciences at Oregon State University. “If the farmer had to pay the full cost of pumping and shipping the water to them, they wouldn’t break even on their agriculture, that’s why other countries aren’t doing it.”

The Libyan government heavily subsidizes the water for farmers who pay about $0.62 for one cubic meter; slightly less than half the price citizens pay to drink it.

“This is basically a wonder of the world, because it’s exactly like the pyramids – it’s huge and massive and probably not cost effective,” says Mr. Wolf.

The Libyan government says reserves will last the country 4,625 years according to current rates of demand. But independent estimates indicate that the aquifer could be depleted in as soon as 60 to 100 years, says Stephen Longhorn, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria in Canada

“The main concerns with any non-renewable resource are the depletion rate and the dependency that is built up by using the resource,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Monitor.

“The knock on these projects is that once the water runs out, there is a dependency that can only be met in the future by desalination or importing water," Mr. Longhorn continues. Projects like this create "a legacy that may have short term gains but ultimately makes the country or region very vulnerable in the future.”

For now, as giant sprinklers mist a 100,000 olive tree nursery in a greenhouse surrounded by sand on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libyan fields are flourishing.

Christian Science Monitor 

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