TO the astonishment of some and the dismay of others, "the great man-made river" flows in Libya.
The "river" is a giant pipeline 560 miles long and 13 feet in diameter that transports water from wells south in the Sahara to the parched populations of the Cyrenaica and Benghazi regions in northeastern Libya.
The $8 billion project is the idea of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. He dubs it the "world's largest civil-engineering project" - hyperbole that is not too far from truth. And his dream of "greening" his country's coastline - once dismissed as a Pharaonic scheme - is now a reality.
The project may portend real improvements in Libya's economy and help boost Colonel Qaddafi's credibility. Water is already flowing. And when a second pipeline is completed, the project's drain on Libya's cash - it has eaten more than 15 percent of national oil revenues - will stop.
Tripoli is next to be rescued from drought. The second pipeline project, drawing water from the Fezzan region to the south, is nearing the capital. At the construction camp a sign recently read "278 days to Tripoli."
"We're going to make it," the chief engineer says.
Phase 1, serving Cyrenaica, was completed three years ago, almost on schedule (both pipelines have been five-year projects with overlapping timetables). Potable water again flows in the region's cities, a luxury only older citizens can recall.
For Libyans, drinkable water has been in short supply. Economic growth and rapid population expansion outstripped the capacity of the few coastal wadis and aquifers that had supplied cities and farms. Overpumping depleted the sweet groundwater supplies. Saltwater had increasingly intruded into the coastal wells, and wells had to be drilled ever deeper. In Tripoli, spigots delivered salty water, or coughed and delivered none.
While the man-made river's cost is high, it is arguably lower than the alternatives. Stopgap solutions proved also expensive and burdensome. Some citizens bought trucked-in water, while others drilled private wells, competing for remaining sweet water. Hospitals, hotels, and institutions built their own desalination plants using a process known as reverse-osmosis to process the brackish well water. At most, supplying by pipeline costs about 50 cents per cubic meter, less than half the price of building more desalination plants.
The crews of Dong Ah, the Korean general contractor, are working long seven-day weeks to finish the last section of the western leg of the system. Now within 30 miles of Tripoli, the work involves parallel operations. Semi-buried cisterns holding hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water are being constructed to even out water flows, and the city is rushing to connect to these tanks from the west, while the Great Man-made River Authority marches with its pipes from the east.
One obstacle: Large parts of the municipal water system had to be partly rebuilt. Years of either pumping salty water or being empty accelerated corrosion, so many of the mains are being replaced. That task is also proceeding apace. Freshly filled trenches for municipal water mains criss-cross Tripoli's streets. Stacks of pipes spot the suburbs.
The water, paradoxically, comes from the Sahara. Large aquifers bearing high-quality water underlie much of southern Libya. These were discovered 40 years ago by oil companies, which had to drill through those water-bearing strata in order to reach the oil fields lying deeper.
"There is at least 100 years' supply of good water," judged a senior geologist. Others say the aquifer may in fact be recharged by the occasional rains in the vast catchment of the Sahara; that balance is uncertain. Most of the water was trapped over 15,000 years ago - at a time when crocodiles and hippopotamuses lived in the now-arid wastelands, fossil evidence suggests.
"The [pipeline] concept seems indeed to be sound," says Tony Allan, a geography professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Although analysts say the water is too costly to use to "make the desert bloom," about two-thirds of the water is destined for agriculture - fields tilled by Tunisian or Egyptian workers growing wheat and other field crops along the Mediterranean coast. As in Israel, about two-thirds of agriculture is uneconomic, in Libya the water cost may well exceed the crop value.
The United States embargo of Libya did not impede the project, even though much was originally US-sourced. The embargo unmistakably did take its toll on US engineers and exports. Brown & Root, the original engineering contractor, was forced to switch the design work to Britain.
The large-diameter pipe, produced in two strategically located plants, is manufactured under license from a firm in Ohio, grandfathered under the rules, but otherwise US equipment is conspicuously absent on site - instead of Caterpillar or John Deere one sees Kawasaki, Hitachi, Renault, and Scania vehicles.