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.
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Libya moves the precious resource from the ground to five giant above-ground reservoirs through pre-stressed concrete pipes, weighing 75-86 tons, that run 20 feet underground. Cranes weighing 450 tons operated on specially constructed roads to install the mammoth cylinders.Skip to next paragraph
Other countries also drill for underground water, but none do so as intensely as Libya. The country is pulling up 2.5 million cubic meters per day, with the expectation of eventually pumping 6.5 million. Experts liken the project to moving 2.5 million Volkswagen Beetles more than 2000 miles every day – one car weighs roughly the same as a cubic meter of water, which is 2200 pounds.
New drip irrigation techniques are being used to ensure water does not go to waste. More than 70 percent of the water is intended for subsided domestic agriculture, with the rest for citizen consumption. None is reserved for heavy industry, according to the government.
'A wonder of the world'
Although it is cheaper for Libya to pump the underground water than use desalination or import the substance, experts are wary of Libya’s decision to irrigate large scale farms with fossil water.
“For Libya this is pretty expensive water. It’s not as expensive as desalinated water, but to irrigate with it is probably not cost effective at the purest sense,” says Aaron Wolf, professor and chair of the department of geosciences at Oregon State University. “If the farmer had to pay the full cost of pumping and shipping the water to them, they wouldn’t break even on their agriculture, that’s why other countries aren’t doing it.”
The Libyan government heavily subsidizes the water for farmers who pay about $0.62 for one cubic meter; slightly less than half the price citizens pay to drink it.
“This is basically a wonder of the world, because it’s exactly like the pyramids – it’s huge and massive and probably not cost effective,” says Mr. Wolf.
The Libyan government says reserves will last the country 4,625 years according to current rates of demand. But independent estimates indicate that the aquifer could be depleted in as soon as 60 to 100 years, says Stephen Lonergan, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria in Canada
“The main concerns with any non-renewable resource are the depletion rate and the dependency that is built up by using the resource,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Monitor.
“The knock on these projects is that once the water runs out, there is a dependency that can only be met in the future by desalination or importing water," Mr. Lonergan continues. Projects like this create "a legacy that may have short term gains but ultimately makes the country or region very vulnerable in the future.”
For now, as giant sprinklers mist a 100,000 olive tree nursery in a greenhouse surrounded by sand on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libyan fields are flourishing.
(Editor's note: This article originally misspelled the name of Professor Stephen Lonergan.)