Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2001, page 56
Libya: Looking Toward a Post-Lockerbie Future
Libya’s Great Man-Made River Project
By Andrew I. Killgore
On Easter 1959 Israel took Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, visiting the Holy Land of Palestine/Israel in the latter years of her life, deep into its bone-dry Negev desert to view 700 acres of verdant alfalfa fed by a lone spring that Israel had harnessed. Although the alfalfa field constituted only a tiny fraction of the Negev, on returning to Jerusalem Mrs. Roosevelt announced that Israel “had made the desert bloom.”
Advanced in Israel’s own media, this “desert blooming” theme was parroted as well in the U.S. media by “Friends of Israel” (FOIs)—the Department of State’s non-committally bland term for American Jewish supporters of Israel, whether fanatically committed Zionists or those with only a sentimental attachment to the Jewish state. Mrs. Roosevelt’s uninformed comment was but one of many bits and pieces patched together to create the image of a “mythological Israel” embodying all the virtues trumpeted to the American people over the past five decades.
Mythological Israel’s 700 irrigated acres in the Negev do not begin to compare with Libya’s 400,000 acres irrigated or scheduled to be irrigated under the Great Man-Made River Project (GMR). Thanks to the American Zionist media’s myth machine portrayal of a “demonized Libya”—in stark contrast to mythological Israel—the GMR, with its 400,000 irrigated acres and over 6 million cubic meters of fresh water delivered daily to Libya’s five million people, has been transformed into the grandiose, harebrained scheme of an eccentric leader, Col. Muammar Al-Qaddafi, that wastes billions and will soon run out of ground water.
The GMR, the English-language acronym Libyans use for the giant water project, is not grandiose. Rather it is grand in vision, in concept and in execution. In fact, given the difference in size and resources between Libya and the U.S., the GMR more properly can be compared to President John F. Kennedy’s call in 1962 to land a man on the moon before that decade expired. The United States succeeded in realizing its vision—and so has Libya.
The physical scale of the GMR is staggeringly large: enough aggregate to build 20 structures the size of Egypt’s great Khufu pyramid at Giza; 1,300 water wells drilled; 7,000,000 miles of pre-stressed steel wire used to strengthen the 12-foot diameter water pipes; 3,500 kilometers of pipeline covering an area equal to West Europe; four pipelines—two toward the west, or Tunisian side of Libya, and two toward the east, or Egyptian, side of the country—with connecting links in the north; and thousands of miles of roads between and connecting the project’s various lines and infrastructure.
As impressive as the physical statistics are, however, the real story of the Great Man-Made River is that it is Libya’s and Colonel Qaddafi’s declaration of independence, an assertion that Libya is determined to stand on its own two feet. The fact is that Libya, populated mainly in a not very thick belt along the Mediterranean Sea with vast deserts to the south, has been treated harshly by nature and by stronger external powers.
In their literature as well as in their personal conversations, Libyans see the desert as a relentless, always-encroaching enemy. At the same time, salt water seeping in from the Mediterranean poisons fresh-water supplies. Rock drawings in Libya’s southern Fezzan province depict large animals, betokening an era of rainfall and prosperity some 14,000 to 38,000 years ago, when it is believed the giant underground reservoirs of water now feeding the GMR were filled.
The government has calculated that one Libyan dinar would bring in more cubic meters of fresh water via the GMR than could be realized from alternative sources such as desalination plants or fresh water brought in by ship or pipeline from Europe or Turkey.While this indeed may be correct, the enthusiasm for the GMR encountered everywhere in Libya suggests that, when he decided in 1983 to go ahead with the project, Colonel Qaddafi tapped into a deep-seated and historic aspiration of Libyans: to defeat the always-threatening desert and rid their country of dependence on uncertain or selfish outsiders.
The section of GMR the Washington Report recently inspected was the Hassauna/Jaffara System (HJS), of which Abdul Hakim Shwehdi is general manager and Muhammad Ali Saleh chief engineer. On Libya’s western side, the HJS provides fresh water to the capital city, Tripoli, and supplies irrigation water for the fertile Jaffara plain paralleling and close to the border with Tunisia.
A 1983 graduate in civil engineering from the University of Oregon, Saleh was lured by the GMR on his return home in 1984, and has helped see the project realized ever since. Now his nine-year-old son wants to become a civil engineer and work on the project as well. Muhammad Ali voiced nostalgia for his years in America and dismay over U.S. sanctions against Libya which have harmed Libya and the GMR.
Because the buried 12-foot-diameter pipes bearing it up from the south still pick up heat from the desert sun, the water in several huge covered fresh-water underground reservoirs tasted sweet and warm. Messrs. Shwehdi and Saleh told the Washington Report that the fresh-water reservoirs were found by American oil companies searching for oil in southern Libya and that the technology of the huge water pipes, wrapped with pre-stressed wire, is American, dating from 1908.
Tens of thousands of acres of olive and almond trees south and southeast of Tripoli testify to good land. Extra water, some from the GMR, will greatly increase farming in that area. Several large farm projects are being let out to bid, with fresh water from near Sabha, capital of Libya’s desert province of Fezzan.
Libyans are proud that the GMR is financed “off-budget,” with proceeds from a 2 percent tax on luxury goods such as cigarettes. GMR officials and other Libyans estimate that present fresh underground water will last 50 years, with replenishment water flowing in as old water is withdrawn.
Neither GMR literature nor any Libyan connected to the project, however, would speculate or comment on the ultimate source of Libya’s huge ground reservoirs—a reluctance that appears related to possible future claims that Libya is tapping into aquifers to which Egypt and Tunisia have a claim.
Even if Israel and the American media’s FOIs have it right for a change, and there is less fresh water than presently calculated, the Great Man-Made River Project is a bold Libyan national quest. After all, even if it “only” brings fresh water to its five million citizens, every Libyan will sing its praises.
At a mountain with huge excavations for underground water storage, Muhammad Ali Saleh laughingly explained that this was the “chemical storage facility” that the American media portrayed as posing such a danger. We saw neither chemicals nor any sign of the guards who surely would have been in evidence if the excavation had in any way involved chemicals.
Andrew I. Killgore is the publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
A Visit to a “Nerve Gas” Factory Produces Laughing Gas
Time Magazine, appropriately on April Fool’s Day 1996, published an exclusive report headlined “Target Gaddafi, again: He’s building a huge plant to make nerve gas and the CIA is trying to stop it.” The report declared that 1992 satellite photos and reports from spies in Libya uncovered “a huge underground chamber of several thousand square feet, almost three stories high.”
The Time story went on to say, “Two years earlier, Washington had succeeded in an international campaign to close down Libya’s chemical-weapons plant at Rabta. Now Muammar Gaddafi was building a second nerve-gas plant near the town of Tarhunah just like the one at Rabta. Only this time it was carved into the side of a mountain where no spy-satellite eyes could see the factory inside and no American jets could destroy it.”
The article quoted then-CIA Director John Deutch as saying that Libya was still building what he called “the world’s largest underground chemical-weapons plant.” Unless destroyed, the experts concluded, “the new factory could keep Gaddafi’s favorite terrorists well stocked with chemical poisons for decades.”
Destruction of the “virtually impregnable” plant would be difficult, for only a “direct hit by a nuclear warhead on top of the mountain could take out the plant. Sneaking a conventional bomb through the front door would be impossible” and “a commando raid would be a suicide mission.”
Intrepid Washington Report reporters drove right through the wide-open front door of this “nerve gas” factory and had a look. We tried not to awaken the 10 or so workers taking an afternoon siesta on mats on the floor of the cavernous room.
Time Magazine got the awe-inspiring dimensions correct, but the purpose quite wrong. The underground chamber carved into the mountain soon will be used as a reservoir for water from the man-made river project that snakes through the hills nearby. Spies in Libya must have been playing a huge practical joke on Time Magazine to inspire this story. According to our translator assistant from Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, Milad Saad Milad, when Libyans talk about the Western media’s treatment of Libya, they point to this foolish story and laugh. So perhaps this plant is producing gas, after all—not nerve gas, but laughing gas!