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Fossil Water in Libya

Libya is an arid nation, mostly desert, in which freshwater is perpetually scarce. Rainfall is meager—only five percent of the nation receives more than 100mm of rain each year. Libya has long relied on groundwater reserves to quench its thirst; but surging demand has stressed supply, and many coastal groundwater aquifers have become brackish with an influx of seawater.

In the mid-1950s, oil exploration in the nation’s vast southern desert revealed a precious resource and a potential solution—fossil water.

Deep under the Sahara sands, ancient aquifers have been storing 40,000-year-old reserves of pure drinking water.

The groundwater was put in place during ancient eras of dramatically different climates and became encapsulated through geological changes. Like the fossil fuels that were also created under long-vanished conditions, this “fossil water” is a non-renewable resource with great potential.

To bring this ancient, remote water to Libya’s people the government launched The Great Man-Made River Project—a water management scheme of enormous scope. The project is a network of pipes and reservoirs that move water from its subterranean desert origins and delivers it to the country’s heavily-populated coastal region at a total estimated cost in excess of $20 billion (U.S.).

Financed by oil revenue, the project began in 1984. Construction continues today—but the Great Man-Made River Project has already had a dramatic impact in the many coastal cities now serviced by water from the nation’s ancient reserves. The system is designed to pump water from some 1,300 desert wells and move 6.5 million cubic meters of it every day. Already, 4,000 km (2,485 miles) of 4-meter-diameter pipeline is transporting water to faucets in Libyan homes.

The design life of the project is 50 years, but the actual life will depend greatly on the pumping rates. In the end, no one knows for certain how much water remains and this source is non-renewable—when it’s gone it’s gone. With so much invested in development of this precious resource, efficient use will be Libya’s key to making every drop count.

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