Millions of Libyans could “face looming water problems” if environmental concerns remain overlooked
Floods and water scarcity are two paradoxical environmental issues plaguing Libya. Solving these issues and preparing the country for climate change will require concerted action from Libya’s internal kingmakers and turbulent coalitions.
Overall, the international community has focused on the political turmoil plaguing Libya in the decade since rebels killed Muammar Gaddafi and dismantled his regime. In the years that followed, a constellation of regional powers invested in rival Libyan governments and warlords, vying for the fate of the North African country. However, environmental issues with their own major implications for Libya’s future have virtually escaped attention. Libyans, however, know all too well the paradoxical challenges of flooding and water scarcity.
The World Resources Institute, an environmental organization, ranked Libya sixth in the world on its 2019 National Water Stress Rankings list. The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, better known as “UNICEF,” warned earlier this year that four million Libyans out of an estimated population of nearly seven million could “face severe hardship. looming water problems ”, a potential“ humanitarian catastrophe ”if the Libyan authorities fail to maintain desalination plants and repair wells.
The concomitant problem of flooding has already had fatal consequences for Libyans. As early as 2013, storms contributed to the floods that flooded the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Three years ago, another storm caused flooding that forced the closure of the international airport in Benghazi, Libya’s second city. A year later, flash floods killed four people and displaced 4,250 Libyans from the southwestern town of Ghat. Thousands of additional displacements occurred last November after a downpour and the resulting flooding in Bayda in northeast Libya.
While foreign news agencies have documented the humanitarian crises sparked by the floods and water scarcity in Libya, headlines about the North African country’s political developments often exceed any other coverage. Many media have reported on the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, convened in February to choose a new interim government for the North African country. Libya’s environmental issues, on the other hand, have only been the subject of an article here and there.
In at least one instance, the possibility of an environmental disaster in Libya has received little attention, even when it overlaps with the country’s political turmoil.
UNICEF’s 2021 water scarcity advisory included a note on the “repeated attacks on” the Great Man-made River, a series of pipelines built during Gaddafi’s rule that carry water to much of the world. of the Libyan population. Despite warnings since 2011 of the catastrophe that would occur if this irreplaceable infrastructure became a military target, few members of the international community seem to be listening.
UNICEF warned earlier this year that four million Libyans out of an estimated population of nearly seven million could “face looming water problems,” a potential “humanitarian catastrophe,” if Libyan authorities fail. maintaining desalination plants and repairing wells.
Some sources describe the man-made Great River as “the greatest irrigation project in the world”, and Gaddafi himself called it “the eighth wonder of the world”. It moved 2.5 million cubic meters of water per day in 2017, or 70% of the fresh water used in Libya.
Benghazi, Tripoli and other cities depend on the complex water supply network, which has become a major prize and was seriously neglected during the ten-year civil war following Gaddafi’s death.
In a June research paper for the Arab Reform Initiative, Libyan analyst Malak Altaeb urged Libya to reduce water consumption, expand the use of desalination plants, “develop policies for participatory water and allowing management at the local level ”. Altaeb argued that these measures could reduce dependence on the man-made Great River and alleviate Libya’s water scarcity, a crucial step if the country seeks to avert an environmental disaster.
In addition to revamping Libya’s domestic policies, the Libyan authorities are likely to need the support of the international community to deal with the parallel challenges of flooding and water scarcity.
Authorities in Tripoli had to spend 10 million Libyan dinars, or more than $ 2 million, to rebuild Bayda last year – a significant sum in a country that has seen its oil industry revenues plummet after years of political violence. Repairing damaged desalination plants and building new ones is also likely to be expensive, requiring foreign funds.
Some aid agencies are moving in this direction. In 2019, the United Nations Development Program provided $ 3.2 million to help the Libyan authorities distribute humanitarian aid in areas affected by the floods. That same year, the United States Agency for International Development, often abbreviated as “USAID”, sent Libya $ 31.3 to meet “humanitarian needs” which included “water, sanitation and hygiene. “. Following the Bayda floods, the European Union also provided assistance to Libya.
As promising as these initiatives may sound, UNICEF’s recent warning on water scarcity indicates that the UN, USAID and the European Union will need to do more if they intend to tackle the problem. this long-term environmental problem. Preparing Libya for the upcoming floods will also require continued foreign aid for the North African country to provide rapid aid to its people.
Last year, the ever-growing group of domestic and foreign actors in Libya came together to achieve a historic ceasefire between the country’s military factions, reducing the likelihood of attacks on the Great Man-made River. , desalination plants and other infrastructure.
Navigating after the floods has also become easier as the conflict dissipates. Likewise, any effort to find a long-term solution to Libya’s environmental problems, foremost among them flooding and water scarcity, will require buy-in from Libyan kingmakers and regional powers.
Austin Bodetti is a writer specializing in the Arab world. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is his own and is not associated with any other entity, except as appropriate attribution.