Fossil Water in Libya

Libya is an arid, largely desert country where freshwater is always in short supply. Rainfall is sparse; barely 5% of the country receives more than 100mm of rain per year. Libya has traditionally relied on groundwater supplies to quench its thirst; however, rising demand has put a strain on supply, and an inflow of seawater has rendered several coastal groundwater aquifers brackish.

Oil drilling in the vast southern desert of the country in the mid-1950s revealed a valuable resource and a possible solution—fossil water.

Ancient aquifers buried deep beneath the Sahara dunes have been preserving 40,000-year-old quantities of pristine drinking water.

Groundwater was encased by geological changes during past ages with drastically differing climates. This “fossil water” is a non-renewable resource with immense potential, similar to fossil fuels, which were also formed under long-gone conditions.

The government established The Great Man-Made River Project, a massive water management system, to bring this old, isolated water to Libya’s people. The project, which is expected to cost more than $20 billion, is a network of pipes and reservoirs that transport water from subsurface desert sources to the country’s densely populated coastline region.

The project began in 1984 and was funded by oil revenue. The Great Man-Made River Project is still under construction, but it has already had a significant influence in the many coastal communities that are now served by water from the nation’s ancient reserves. The system is meant to transport 6.5 million cubic meters of water each day from 1,300 desert wells. Already, a 4,000-kilometer (2,485-mile) pipeline with a 4-meter diameter transports water to Libyan faucets.

The project’s design life is 50 years, however the actual life will be determined by pumping rates. Finally, no one knows how much water is left, and this resource is non-renewable—once it’s gone, it’s gone. With so much money involved in the development of this valuable resource, Libya’s ability to make every drop count will be critical.