Aug 31, 2011 | 22:57 GMT

9 mins read

Libya: Water Cutoffs to Tripoli Tied to Security Situation

Water shortages began in the Libyan capital the day after rebel forces entered the city. The shortages have been attributed to a cutoff in supplies from the Great Man-Made River (GMR) in an area near one of the last strongholds of Moammar Gadhafi's power. Technicians have not been able to visit the infrastructure to make repairs due to the security situation in the area. Thus, it seems the water supply from the GMR will not begin flowing to Tripoli again until the rebels have cleared out the remaining Gadhafi loyalists.
Because of a supply cutoff, water shortages began in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the day after rebel forces entered the city Aug. 21. So far, there have not been signs of any unrest in the affected areas of Tripoli as a direct result; most people seem willing to tolerate the inconvenience of water shortages as long as the situation is not life threatening. Humanitarian aid and a decrease in water use are helping to keep the situation from becoming hazardous, but the National Transitional Council (NTC) still has two concerns about the water shortage: first, that it will not be able to restore the flow of water to Tripoli quickly, and second, that even if water is restored soon it will not be able to prevent supply cuts from becoming a perpetual problem. The NTC is already facing several challenges as it tries to establish its political authority in Tripoli, and it does not want to add another problem to its list. Multiple explanations have been offered for the water shortages, which are affecting more than 3 million people in Libya's western coastal region. The cause appears to be a cutoff of the flows from the western system of the Great Man-Made River (GMR), a huge subsurface water pumping and transport system that taps aquifers deep in the Sahara and transports the water to Libya's coast. Approximately three-fourths of Tripoli's municipal water resources come from the GMR, with the rest coming from seawater desalinization plants, local wells and sewage treatment plants. The system has changed the face of modern Libya; since the first phase of the GMR's construction in 1991, Libya's population has increased by almost 50 percent, from around 4.5 million to approximately 6.5 million. Without this source of water, the population would be pressured to return to earlier levels. The GMR is a vital piece of infrastructure for any administration trying to govern Tripoli and has many vulnerable points along its nearly 600-kilometer (370-mile) path. The GMR has an eastern system and a western system that draw water from different well fields. In the western system, water originates in 580 wells, only around 30 of which currently are online, according to reports. NTC officials and the European Commission's humanitarian organization ECHO claim that pro-Gadhafi forces have sabotaged the system, creating the water cutoff. There are also reports of empty storage tanks and pipeline damage on the GMR between 40 and 100 kilometers from Tripoli, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that the primary regional reservoir at Gharyan (the easternmost point of the Nafusa Mountains, connected to the GMR western system) has dried up. An Aug. 30 Reuters report citing a report prepared by ECHO claimed the water cutoff had occurred in the coastal city of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and a remaining stronghold for his forces. An interconnector between the GMR's eastern and western systems runs through the city; if Gadhafi loyalists had cut off the water flow via the GMR to Tripoli, it would only increase the impetus for NTC forces to seize the city, which is situated between the NTC's zones of control in western and eastern Libya. However, ECHO claims that its report was misquoted and denies that activity in Sirte has anything to do with the shortages in Tripoli, insisting instead that the disruption in flow is from an area known as the Jebel Hassouna. This area is deep in the Sahara, south of Tripoli, and close to another Gadhafi stronghold: Sabha.

Securing Water Amid 'Uncertain' Conditions

NTC forces firmly control the territory ranging from the Nafusa Mountains northward to Tripoli but have yet to extend a strong presence into the desert regions to the south (as evidenced by the ability of several members of Gadhafi's family to safely reach the Algerian border Aug. 29). ECHO, however, says rebel forces have been in control of the wellheads and flow stations in the Jebel Hassouna area since Aug. 24. This is unconfirmed, but even if it is true, forces loyal to Gadhafi are still a threat near Sabha. That no technical teams have been able to travel to the area to bring the wells back online — which ECHO admits is because of the "uncertain" security situation — indicates how vulnerable Tripoli's GMR water supplies are. Linear infrastructure like this is difficult for even coherent governments to defend. Gadhafi loyalists currently retain immense freedom of action and possess both the capability and incentive to attack targets affiliated with the GMR. This will not change so long as the NTC lacks the ability to drive them out. The military situation in both the northern population centers and the desert areas to the south therefore directly affects the water shortages in the capital. As of Aug. 31, four key Gadhafi strongholds remain in Libya. Tarhouna, Bani Walid and Sirte are all to the east of Tripoli along the coastal region. Sabha is hundreds of kilometers south, in the heart of the Sahara, and connects to Sirte via a single paved road. NTC forces still do not control the area in between, and control of such an open space is never easy to maintain. There are two main routes for NTC forces to get to Sabha: From the Nafusa Mountains or through Sirte. If ECHO's claims about rebel forces controlling the wellfields at Jebel Hassouna are true, they likely reached the area from the mountains. NATO planes, meanwhile, have bombed Sirte continuously for the past week while the NTC keeps negotiating with the city's remaining holdouts until a recently imposed Sept. 3 deadline passes. Meanwhile, the NTC allegedly is considering launching a military assault on Sabha in response to the reports that Gadhafi-ordered sabotage is causing the water shortages. An NTC official said the only reason for a delay in the attack is a concern over the potential to seriously damage the GMR infrastructure in the process. In reality, there is every indication that the NTC continues to lack the logistical capability to reach Sabha from its current zones of control, so an attack on Sabha is highly unlikely while Sirte remains beyond NTC forces' grasp.

The Humanitarian Situation in Tripoli

Meanwhile, the water shortages have not yet created a crisis in Tripoli. Area residents have ramped up withdrawals from local wells, which can supply roughly one-quarter of Libya's municipal water needs. Much of this water is being trucked in and distributed from surrounding areas, though the potability of this water is questionable, as heavy use over decades has made many wells brackish and the water suitable only for washing. In addition, freshwater wells in such close proximity to the sea are more prone to this phenomenon, which could create problems for Libya — the majority of its population resides in the coastal regions. International organizations are scrambling to mitigate a looming humanitarian crisis, with groups such as the European Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) sending water rations and mobilizing experts to assess and repair the damage. Supplementing Tripoli's water supply is the most pressing issue. UNICEF and the World Food Program have so far delivered 213,000 liters (56,300 gallons) of water and are in the process of procuring a total of 5 million liters. The World Food Program reported on Aug. 30 that a vessel was en route from Malta to Tripoli carrying 500,000 liters of water. Greece and Turkey are also being tapped for emergency deliveries of potable water. But these deliveries, while significant, provide only a fraction of a single day's drinking water consumption for Tripoli. Distributing water supplies large enough to begin alleviating the shortages poses a significant logistical hurdle for the NTC. Simply loading water onto a major oil tanker would not work; Tripoli's port is limited in the size of ships it can receive, and those tankers are too large. So far, the limited amounts of water arriving have been moved in more modular containment — such as water bottles — and distributed by truck and by hand. The residents of Tripoli have exhibited resilience in the face of the shortages, however. Part of the solution has been a mass tactical shift in the allocation of potable water. The GMR allowed pre-war daily water use to average more than 200 liters per capita. The amount of water needed per capita for survival is much lower — humanitarian agencies have been placing the figure at 3-4 liters (assuming low activity levels) — meaning that even a massive decrease in the flow of water to Tripoli does not automatically create the danger of large numbers of deaths, so long as the situation does not deteriorate further. None of this is to say that the situation in Tripoli is sustainable should it last for too long — at least in the eyes of the NTC. There will be a limit to the amount of goodwill the people of Tripoli hold toward the NTC, whose fight against Gadhafi has led to the current situation. At a certain point, continued water shortages in Tripoli will create rising anger toward the rebel council, and toward NATO as well, as people will begin to point fingers at those who led them into their current plight. Governing is often harder than rebellion, and the logistical challenges of bringing order to Tripoli while continuing to fight Gadhafi's remaining forces have the potential to become a major burden. The NTC will thus seek to ensure that the GMR is brought back online as soon as possible. Experts estimate repair time to be anywhere from three days to more than a week, but this assumes technicians can reach the area without coming under attack, which will depend on the NTC's ability to minimize the strength of the last vestiges of Gadhafi's forces.

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