Libya’s longstanding and deeply entrenched water supply and sanitation challenges have led to periodic water shortages and resulting protests. The Government of National Unity (GNU) has prioritized tackling the crisis, but progress has been slow, with few measurable improvements to the country’s water and sanitation infrastructure. In July 2022, UNICEF expressed concern over the deteriorating water supplies, warning that approximately 4mn people could lose access to safe drinking water if immediate solutions were not found and implemented. According to the UN agency, Libya sits on the “water poverty line” and will suffer debilitating water shortages if the challenge is not swiftly overcome.
One of the country’s most critical civilian facilities is the Great Manmade River (GMR), a holdover project from the Qadhafi era that continues to supply water to most Libyans through a complex pipeline network that stretches over thousands of kilometers. The GMR system provides Libya with more than 70% of its fresh water, drawing from aquifers in the southern regions. The water is piped to the 80% of the population that lives along the country’s Mediterranean coast. The GMR administration has repeatedly warned international organizations, including the UN, that a sudden shutdown of the primary water pipeline system could occur if extensive repair work is not done urgently. Previously, in 2019, the administration warned, “The consequences will be catastrophic as there is no viable alternative water supply system.” Few improvements have been made since then.
The GMR is also vulnerable to armed attack; water supplies have been disrupted by numerous acts of sabotage over the years. The western and southern sections of the GMR project have suffered the most disruption. According to GMR’s management, more than 20% of GMR wells have been vandalized in western Libya since 2011. The most recent incident involved leakage near Bani Walid. The GMR claimed that it was due to “sabotage acts” but did not release further details.
Planning specialists and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) have sounded the alarm, reminding policymakers and the international community that the GMR alone cannot supply all of Libya’s future water needs. The country’s demand for water has increased from 5.5 bcm in 2011 to 7 bcma at present. GMR officials estimate that within the next five years, Libya’s annual water demand will reach 8 bcma. Several GMR officials have privately told Horizon that a water tax should be introduced, but they acknowledge that such a measure would face considerable public opposition and could spark unrest. In Tripoli and other parts of western Libya, erratic water supplies and shortages have forced many residents to dig borewells.
Efforts to scale up Libya’s desalination programs have failed to advance amid budgeting issues and a lack of policy leadership. Several desalination plants provide potable water to towns, including Tobruk, Derna, Zliten, Zawiya and Zwara. However, Horizon contacts at the General Authority for Water Resources report that many more plants are needed, even as they acknowledge that desalination is much more expensive. Currently, GMR water supply costs $0.28/liter, whereas Libyan officials have estimated the cost of desalinized water at $2/liter.
In a recent report based on extensive public surveys across the country, UNICEF found that 31% of the population receives water through the public network, while 45% relies on bottled water to fulfill their needs – at an average monthly cost of $13.75 per household. More than two thirds of the respondents reported problems with tap water – bad taste, smell or color – and only 5% were able to treat their water before drinking it. UNICEF cited officials from the General Company for Water and Wastewater (GCWW) who confirmed several instances of sewage mixing with drinking water. Perceptions of the GCWW were not favorable, with most respondents considering it unreliable. Moreover, the UN agency expressed further alarm over research indicating that only half of the country’s healthcare facilities are equipped with handwashing facilities (soap and water). It reported that 24% of health facilities rely on water trucks to supply their needs.
On the sanitation front, UNICEF has highlighted the abysmal state of Libya’s sanitation infrastructure, noting that only 45% of households, businesses and organizations are connected to the public sanitation network; most are connected to cesspits, which often pollute groundwater reservoirs. Most of the country’s wastewater is discharged directly into the Mediterranean without treatment (prompting many Tripolitanians to warn against swimming anywhere near the capital).
The water and sanitation woes are a scathing indictment of Libya’s political leaders, who have repeatedly neglected the issue since 2011. According to our contacts, most policymakers have failed to recognize the crisis as long as they and their families enjoy access to reliable water and sanitation services. Moreover, the country’s leaders are ignoring the expanding environmental impact of the crisis and the chaos that a systematic breakdown of the water supply and sanitation system would cause.
personality of the week
Chief of Staff of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF). Naduri, in his 60s, is from the eastern town of al-Marj and comes from the Orafi, a minor eastern tribe.
The buffoonish Naduri has been considered an unremarkable figure with a checkered history – including a spell in jail and a discharge from the Qadhafi-era military before he was appointed chief of staff of Khalifa Haftar’s self- styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in late 2014. In 2020, he notoriously threatened anyone, including medical personnel, who dared criticize the LAAF for its unimpressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
His name has occasionally circulated as a Haftar’s possible successor, but most LAAF personnel do not take him seriously, given his spotty military career. However, we believe that Naduri should not be written off just yet. He has been cultivated by Cairo and has intensely engaged tribal and civil society leaders in eastern Libya. Over time, his patient approach could pay off if he avoids further gaffes.