The Great Man-Made River Project: Libya’s Achievement and NATO’s War Crimes
by Frances Thomas
September 5, 2011
September 1st is the anniversary of an event little known in the West. Today, twenty 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 1200 kilometres of pipeline to the coastal areas where 90% of Libyan people live, delivering around one
million 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 September 1, the new government nationalised the oil companies and spent
much of the oil revenues to harness 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 seventies and in 1983 the Great Man-made River Authority was set up. The project began the following
year, fully funded by the Libyan government. The almost $30 billion 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 4000-kilometre network of 4m diameter lined concrete pipes, buried
below the desert sands to prevent evaporation. There are 1300 wells, 500,000 sections of pipe, 3700 kms of haul roads,
and 250 million 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 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 influence 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
“pipedream”, “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 truth is, 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, along with 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% 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 twenty years since fresh reticulated water first came to their city, and Gaddafi’s vision should
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.
September 1, 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
“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.