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Libya's Qaddafi taps 'fossil water' to irrigate desert farms

While many countries in the Middle East and North Africa bicker over water rights, Libya has tapped into an aquifer of 'fossil water' to change its topography – turning sand into soil. The 26-year, $20 billion project is nearly finished.

By Sarah A. TopolCorrespondent / August 23, 2010

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi addresses the media during the official closing ceremony of the Sixth African Union Summit in this 2006 file photo. Libya has tapped into an aquifer of 'fossil water' to change its topography – turning sand into soil.

Antony Njuguna/Reuters/File

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Tripoli, Libya

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.

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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.

IN PICTURES: Following Qaddafi's fashion

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.”

Taping into 'fossil water'

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.

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