The Great Man-Made River

Libya’s Great Man-Made River is “an enormous, long-term undertaking to supply the country’s needs by drawing water from aquifers beneath the Sahara and conveying it along a network of huge underground pipes.”

[Images: The concrete skeleton of Libya’s future river, the “8th wonder of the world,” being trucked into place; photographed by Jaap Berk].

Not only does Libya bear the distinction of holding the world record for hottest recorded temperature (136º F), but most of the country’s terrain is “agriculturally useless desert” that receives little or no rainfall. The Great Man-Made River may not even successfully irrigate Libya’s governmentally-specified agricultural zones, but due to the region’s complete “absence of permanent rivers or streams” – and because the country’s “approximately twenty perennial lakes are brackish or salty” – the River’s expected 50-100 year lifespan is at least a start.

Indeed, Libya’s “limited water is considered of sufficient importance to warrant the existence of the Secretariat of Dams and Water Resources, and damaging a source of water can be penalized by a heavy fine or imprisonment.” George Orwell would perhaps call this watercrime.

However, I have to say that the prospect of spelunking through the Great Man-Made River’s subterranean galleries in 125 years, once those tunnels have dried-up, makes the brain reel. Imagine Shelleys of the 22nd century wandering through those ruins, notebooks in hand, taking photographs, footsteps echoing rhythmically beneath the dunes as they walk for a thousand kilometers toward the sea…

Yet some are skeptical of the project’s real purpose. Precisely because the Great Man-Made River consists of “a stupendous network of underground tunnels and caverns built with the help of Western firms to run the length and width of the country,” some consultants and engineers “have revealed their suspicion that such facilities were not meant to move water, but rather to conceal the movement and location of military-related activities.” The fact that water is flowing through some of the pipes, in other words, is just an elaborate ruse…

In any case, the Great Man-Made River Authority – “entrusted with the implementation and operation of the world’s largest pre-stressed concrete pipe project” – is already seeing some results.

The network will criss-cross most of the country –

– and Phase III is under construction even as this post goes online.

Meanwhile, for more information on deep desert hydrology see UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme or even Wikipedia.

Of course, you could also turn to J.G. Ballard, whose twenty year-old novel The Day of Creation is: 1) not very good, and 2) about a man who is “seized by the vision of a third Nile whose warm tributaries covered the entire Sahara.” That river will thus “make the Sahara bloom.” The book was modestly reviewed by Samuel Delany, if you want to know more.

On the other hand, I would actually recommend Dune – assuming you like science fiction.

[Image: A new river is born, excavated from the surface of the desert: soon the pipes will be installed and the currents will start to flow…].

16 thoughts on “The Great Man-Made River”

  1. Good call on Dune. It must sound odd to anyone who has only seen the Lynch atrocity and has vague images of badly designed giant worms, but the ecology of water conservation becomes palpable in that book. I read the first half in a night when I was about 16, and I remember getting up to get a drink and staring in horror at all the water flowing from the tap into the drain.

  2. The professor brought up this project in a Political Geography class I took awhile back. Some think that drawing water from underground aquifers would cause enough subsidence that it could alter the flow of the Nile…. towards Libya.

  3. wow. this project makes the big dig look like an 8 year old in a sand box. i wonder what kind of evidence of this man-made river will exist on the surface–beyond the farms they hope to create. i am a student of landscape architecture studying in guanajuato, mexico where, since the colonial period, a system of tunnels has channeled spring/creek water from the mountains that surround the city. initially the water in the city was seen as an amenity, though occasional flooding caused some damage. in 1905, a flood bigger than any other on record devastated a large part of the downtown area and the city responded by tunneling all of the water and constructing circulation additional tunnels for automobile and mining traffic. what is also interesting is that despite or maybe because of this system, guanajuato is currently going through a water shortage of it’s own. i am commenting because i am curious if any of your readers who saw this (or you) know of any urban, underground rivers that are revealed somehow above ground. my classmate and i are doing a few projects about the situation here and are looking for precedents. anyone?

  4. This article should include information of the destruction this is causing to people’s land and homes. The pipes go through people land and homes. shred it and the libyan government doesn’t pay any compensation. Gaddafi is not supporting the libyan people.

  5. Oh seriously people have homes in the middle of a 6000 year old desert? and since when do bedouin care about formal land titles. BTW I expect there will always be some leakage and the leakage will sustain wild grasses along the course of the pipeline so it would be very easy to see where the pipeline is from the sky. Kind of handing over the kill switch of the economy to any country (cough America cough) with planes and ground penetrating bombs. No wonder Gaddafi has become such an American boot licker recently

  6. You have to make sure get an answer this following questions

    1-Where the water coming from?

    2-How much total budget and how much spent till this time?

    3-Is it worthed bring the water to the sea shore or build city wehere the water source is?


  7. Wikipedia says the water will last for "At current rates of retrieval, the aquifer would be depleted in just over 63,000 years." This is significantly more than the articles 50-100 year lifespan.

  8. I agree with one of the above comments. I heard many people were evicted from their homes in order to make room for these giant pipes.

    And 'PG,' your comments are completely worthless.

  9. You know, what this reminds me of is Jules Verne's book 'Invasion of the Sea'; where there is a proposed massive flooding of the central Algeria and Libya into a huge inland sea. (To extend French sea power, of course.)

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