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The fight for water

Phillip Knightley (ONE MAN’S VIEW) / 30 April 2011

There has been one important fact missing in all the news stories and speculation that have appeared on Libya.

No one as far as I can tell has mentioned the Libyan Great Man-Made River Project (GMRP), “the eighth wonder of the world”, or speculated on what influence it may have had on the fighting that is going on there. The question we should be asking is: could Libya be a war not about oil but about water?

Let’s look at the facts first. In 1953 while drilling for oil in southern Libya, workers found instead a huge freshwater sea beneath the sands, a vast ocean called the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, which stretches beneath Libya, Egypt, Chad and Sudan. The water had accumulated during the last ice age. Its reserves are estimated to be the equivalent to about 500 years of Nile River flow and are expected to last a thousand years.

Although Western technicians said that Libya did not have the expertise to exploit this underground ocean, in the early 1980s Col. Muammar Gaddafi initiated the Great Man-Made River Authority, a 25 billion dollar project to raise the water and pipe it across the desert. Expertise and equipment was imported from Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan and South Korea. The first water began to flow in September 1989 and the project is nearing completion this year.

It is already the world’s largest irrigation project and the largest underground network of pipes and aqueducts. It supplies 6,500,000 cubic metres of fresh water daily to Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirt and elsewhere. From being one of the driest countries on earth, the Libyan desert is now blooming.

Sarah A. Topol, of The Christian Science Monitor, describes finding in the middle of the desert rows of green grapes dangling from vines, almond trees blossoming, and pear orchards thriving. But most debates today on the Western presence in Libya center on preventing violence, securing oil or assisting “brave, democracy-deserving rebels”. None of these reasons rings true. Should we look for an economic justification?

Muammar Al Gaddafi was openly advocating the creation of a new currency that would rival the dollar and the euro. In fact, he called upon African and Muslim nations to join an alliance that would make this new currency, the gold dinar, their primary form of money and foreign exchange. They would sell oil and other resources to the US and the rest of the world only for gold dinars. Was this behind the revolution and the support it received from the West?

Perhaps. But I think water is a much more likely reason. In 2008, the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said, “Our experiences tell us that environmental stress, due to lack of water, may lead to conflict and would be greater in poor nations…as the global economy grows, so will its thirst.”

Exactly. Gaddafi’s project offers limitless amounts of water for Libyans and will allow them to be totally self-sufficient, and because water equates money and power in the near future, other countries may be dependent on its reserves. A self-sufficient, dictator-ruled nation with control over the world’s most precious resource waves a big red warning flag for the West?

Gaddafi foresaw this. At a celebration event for the project in 1991, he told the audience: “After this achievement, American threats against Libya will double...”

So the conflict is not about democracy or reducing violence.  It has taken a student from Wellesley College, MA to see the link. Terra L. Stanley writing in a blog summed it up: “The United States has turned a blind eye to violent dictators in the past and it will do so again.  Only self-sufficient violent leaders with control over natural resources call its attention.  In Libya, the world is seeing its first major military conflict over the new liquid gold.”

Phillip Knightley is a veteran London-based  journalist and commentator

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