Libya needs water despite Qaddafi's Great Manmade River

More than half of Libya is without running water and a humanitarian crisis is looming in Tripoli even though the country has Muammar Qaddafi's Great Manmade River.

BENGHAZI // It was one of Col Muammar Qaddafi's most prized projects, even bearing a name with the grandiosity the former Libyan leader is famous for: The Great Manmade River.

It makes up one of the largest freshwater supply networks in the world, with more than 2,820 kilometres of underground pipes pumping water from huge aquifers in the south of the country to coastal cities and desert towns.

Yet, despite its liquid wealth, more than half of the country is without running water and a humanitarian crisis is looming in Tripoli.

Christian Balslev-Olesen, Unicef's head in Libya, said 23,000 bottles of water had been delivered with another 90,000 bottles expected to arrive today.

"This could turn into an unprecedented health epidemic", he said.

Even the National Transitional Council, the interim government, appeared to be unaware of exactly why the western part of the country is running out of drinking water.

Rumours have swirled about the former regime sabotaging Tripoli's main source of water in Jebel Al Hasawinah, and even the poisoning of an underground reservoir further up the line.

Shamsiddin Ben Ali, a spokesman for the NTC, said yesterday that facilities had been sabotaged at Ash Shuwayrif and Sidi as Sayd.

But an official in the Great Manmade River Authority in Benghazi, Abdussalam Jehawi, said yesterday that the crisis was an unavoidable result of the battle to seize the capital last week. A combination of power outages, attacks on staff manning the water network and a backup reservoir being held hostage have led to the crisis.

The problems came within the first day of the battle. Tripoli had an 18-hour power outage that stopped pipeline pumps, cutting off the supply of new water.

But when power began flickering on again, the main station supplying Tripoli from Jebel Al Hasawinah was attacked by what his team described as African mercenaries and Qaddafi loyalists. The main supply of the water is near the city of Sabha, which is still under the former regime's control.

"Our staff were terrorised," said Mr Jehawi, a board member of the authority. The loyalists "stole their four-wheel drive vehicles, used machine guns, took all their food".

Pumps were switched off and staff could not get back inside to restart them.

To make matters worse, a site critical to the backup plan was also under the control of Qaddafi fighters.

The system was set up so that engineers can supply Tripoli with water from the east. But the facility where engineers can turn the water on is inside Sirte, Col Qaddafi's hometown and one of the last two holdouts of soldiers against the rebels.

If NTC fighters can take control of the city, the Great Manmade River can begin supplying Tripoli with 250,000 cubic metres of water per day - enough to cover about half the demand.

"This could be taken care of soon if Sabha and Sirte are taken by the rebels," Mr Jehawi said. "Until then, there is not much we can do."

It was unsurprising, he said, that Col Qaddafi and his followers would use the Great Manmade River as a tool to wreak havoc on the population.

During the initial phase of the fight in the east, regime forces hid tanks, artillery and other military assets inside a field full of unusable pipeline that was meant for the project. Those were destroyed by Nato air strikes.

Despite the huge practical purpose of the Great Manmade River, one of its major functions was to massage Col Qaddafi's ego. In speeches and demonstrations, the former leader called it the "Eighth wonder of the world" and exaggerated its cost to US$25 billion (Dh91.75bn). In fact, the total cost since the start in 1984 has been about $9.2bn (Dh33.88bn), with another $3.4bn planned to be spent for the completion of phase three in the western mountains, Mr Jehawi said.

Nevertheless, the project cost more than it should have because engineers were abruptly told in the middle of planning in the 1980s for the second phase to go around a huge tract of the desert known as Rabta, where Col Qaddafi was building a chemical weapons plant known as "Pharma 150", Mr Jehawi said.

"It's sad that we have this reputation among people as a Qaddafi project, as something he spent so much of the country's money on," Mr Jehawi said. "It really is an important project."