$33 bln Libyan water scheme stirs debate
Libya shed light on Wednesday on a 33-billion-dollar scheme, contested by some as mad or wasteful, to extract water from deep beneath the Sahara and pipe it across the desert to its coastal cities.
For the first time in a major international forum, Libyan officials gave a presentation of the "Great Man-Made River Project," a scheme that dwarfs all for ambition and cost, and defended it against charges of environmental vandalism and water theft.
The scheme, already some two-thirds complete, is economically viable and should not stoke any conflict with Libya's neighbours, said Fawzi al-Sharief Saeid, director of the project's technical centre for groundwater management.
He put the total bill at 33.69 billion dollars in capital investment and running costs over 50 years.
"Studies have shown that the Great Man-Made River Project is more economical than other alternatives," being some nine to 11 times better value for money compared with desalination plants or water imported from Europe, he said.
At predicted extraction rates, "recoverable reserves would last for 4,860 years" for all four countries -- Libya, Sudan, Chad and Egypt -- that can draw upon its source, he said.
Despite its name, the project is not a river with banks.
Instead, it entails a network of 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) of pipes, which take water, sucked out from an ancient desert aquifer, to the northern coastal strip, where most of the country's 5.76 million people live.
Driven by Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi to promote food self-sufficiency, the Great Man-made River was hailed in leaflets at the World Water Forum in Istanbul as "The Eighth Wonder of the World."
Despite its mammoth size, the project has been going on for so long and so discreetly that it hardly registers on today's environmental radar screen, said Eugenia Ferragina, a senior researcher on water at Italy's National Research Council.
One reason is the tensions that persisted between Libya and the United States and have only recently eased.
The strategic nature of the scheme bred secrecy -- as well as conspiratorial rumours, aired in some western media in 1997, that the pipes were being used to store biological and chemical weapons.
"This is the first time at a World Water Forum that we hear (in detail) from our colleagues in Libya," said Andras Szollosi-Nagy, a senior official for water at UNESCO, who praised the transparency of their presentation.
"It's a huge engineering project... the biggest thing in town, whichever way you look at it."
But other experts shook their heads at the scheme's astronomical cost and questioned the wisdom of mining "fossil" water, deposited aeons ago, that will never be replenished by the Sahara's meagre rains.
Mark Smith, a water specialist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told AFP: "The water is not going to be replaced. You can pump merrily away and do lots of things with it, but it's not sustainable.
"This is such an expensive option. Rather than go through all that expense, spend all that national treasure, you could buy the food from places where there is a sustainable source of water."
Ferragina said Kadhafi's scheme was "senseless from the economic point of view" and laden with potential for stoking friction with neighbours.
"In many cases involving cross-border aquifers, if you start pumping on one side, it causes water to flow from the other side of the boundary to your side, because of gravity," she said.
"It becomes a pumping race, a race to see who can extract the water first."
"Kadhafi's reach seems to have exceeded his grasp," said British writer Fred Pearce in a book on water scarcity, "When the Rivers Run Dry."
"The vast capital cost and the growing bills for pumping water from ever greater depths beneath the desert make wheat grown with the Saharan water among the most expensive on Earth."