Despite what you hear about Muammar Gaddafi in the media, there is no doubt that he was the pioneer of one of the biggest civilian development projects in the world. Libya’s ex-president didn’t waste his forty-two-year rule on all fun and games like it has been portrayed, and the Great Man-Made River is a testimony to this fact. Gaddafi wanted to provide fresh water for his people. Thus he worked towards turning the desert green and making Libya self-sufficient regarding food and water supply.
Libya is located in the northeastern Africa, and like other countries around it, it’s one of the sunniest and driest desert on the planet. Fresh water sources are scarce, and there are areas where many years might pass without seeing any rainfall at all. Before the project, less than 5% of the country had enough water for settled agriculture, and other than the much expensive desalination plants on the coast, there were no real means for any water supply.
But the game changed when in 1953, vast quantities of ancient water aquifers were discovered that dated back to the Ice Age. This was supposed to be an oil exploration mission, but instead, the team discovered four huge water basins with capacities, each ranging between 4,800 and 20,000 cubic km in capacity. Further studies demonstrated that most of this water was collected between 38,000 and 14,000 years ago, a time when the Saharan region enjoyed a temperate climate.
Soon after a massive engineering project was commissioned by Gaddafi, consisting a network of underground pipes aimed at tapping this fresh water from ancient underground aquifers and bringing it to the drought-stricken Libyan cities. The project was termed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by Gaddafi, while the western media named it a “vanity project”, “Gaddafi’s Pet Project” and “the pipe dream of a mad dog”.
But the fact is that till date the Great Man-Made River Project has proved to be a fantastic water delivery system, changing lives of millions of Libyans across the country.
Initially, Gaddafi planned to use this water to create large-scale agricultural projects in the desert, but after public’s reluctance towards moving, he changed the plant to bring the water to the people instead.
In August 1984, the foundations of the pipe production plant were laid by Muammar Gaddafi at Brega. And with that, the Great Man-Made River Project was initiated. The project constituted of around 1,300 wells into the desert soil going down to 500 meters deep in order to pump water from the subterranean water reserves. The pipe routes went through the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte and elsewhere, providing water to about 6.5 million people through a network of underground pipes which were 2,800 km long. The pipeline first reached Tripoli in 1996, at the completion of the first phase of the project.
The project was in its third phase when the civil war was imposed on the country. Even with the last two phases yet to be completed, the Great Man-Made River is the world’s largest irrigation project. If and when the fifth and final phase of the project is complete, the network will consist of 4,000 km length of pipes enabling 155,000 hectares of land to be cultivated.
The project was well organised that in 1999, UNESCO accepted Libya’s offer to fund the Great Man-Made River. It also won the International Water Prize, an award that is only given to remarkable scientific research work.
At the time of inauguration of the first phase in 1991, Muammar Gaddafi had said:
“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.”
In July 2011, the Great Man-Made River water supply pipeline was bombed by NATO air strike near Brega. A factory was also destroyed that produces the pipes, with NATO claiming that the factory was being used as “a military storage facility” with “rockets being launched from site”.
NATO’s attack on the pipeline disrupted water supply immensely, cutting down the water supply for over 70% of the population who have become incredibly dependent on the piped supply of water. With the bloody and gruesome civil war’s end nowhere in sight, the present and the future of the Great Man-Made River Project is in great jeopardy.
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