Libya: oil, water interests behind war?

Libya’s provisional authority says five international oil firms are resuming operations in the country, VOA reported Sept. 2. National Transitional Council (NTC) member Aref Ali Nayed said the companies include Italian energy giant ENI. We noted yesterday that BP, at least, is waiting for stability to be restored—as members of the Tuareg minority were apparently just met with harsh reprisals by anti-Qaddafi fighters at the desert town of Ghadames, where BP hopes to drill. But The Guardian reported Sept. 1 that BP is already in talks with the NTC to expand operations in Libya. The Guardian also cites a report Sept. 1 in the Paris daily LibĂ©ration of a secret deal with the TNC under which French companies would control more than a third of Libya’s oil production.

The document is reproduced in LibĂ©ration, dated April 3, but the top of the letterhead reads “Popular Front for the Liberation of Libya”—an entity we have not heard of before. (The Guardian account fails to mention this rather salient fact.) French Foreign Minister Alain JuppĂ© denied the deal, as did the NTC. The NTC’s ambassador in Paris, Mansur Seif al-Nasr, told AFP he had never heard of the “Popular Front.” The text, however, seems to reference the NTC, pledging to reserve “35% of total crude oil for France in exchange for the total and permanent support for our Council.”

Qaddafi charges imperialist designs on Libya’s water
Moammar Qaddafi of course remains at large, and is now broadcasting his charming statements on Syrian satellite TV. In his latest on Sept. 1—anniversary of the 1969 coup that brought him to power—the elusive strongman ranted: “Let it be a long battle. We will fight from place to place, from town to town, from valley to valley, from mountain to mountain… If Libya goes up in flames, who will be able to govern it? Let it burn.” In a misogynist ad-lib that will surely be forgiven by his fans on the idiot left, he added: “We are not women. We will keep fighting.”

“The Libyan people would rather die than be suppressed,” he said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Libyan people just overthrew him. “This is something we will not allow the traitors to do—let Libya be occupied and suppressed and humiliated,” he continued, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Libya has not been occupied. He also charged that foreign powers are intent on confiscating Libya’s natural resources—singling out not only oil, but also water. (Reuters, Sept. 2; VOA, Metro UK, CSM, CNN, Sept. 1)

Whither the Great Man-Made River?
The reference to Libya’s water resources invokes the struggle now underway for the Great Man-Made River (GMMR)—a massive water diversion project built by Qaddafi’s regime (with help from Japanese, British and Turkish contractors) over the past 25 years, which draws from fossil aquifers deep below the interior Sahara, left over from before desertification began some 8,000 years ago. (Ancient rock-carvings both in Libya and in Western Sahara show crocodiles, giraffes and hippopotami—confirming scientists’ claims that the bleak desert was once lush and green.) (BBC News, March 18, 2006; Global Water Intelligence, May 2002)

Qaddafi’s forces now appear to have sabotaged his own “Eighth Wonder of the World,” as he dubs the GMMR, cutting off the water supply to Tripoli. Three-quarters of the capital’s water supply is provided by the GMMR, and most of the city is now cut off. British forces are distributing bottled water, as NTC forces struggle to regain control of the GMMR. But with Qaddafi’s remnant forces retreating south into the desert—towards the distant fossil water sources—this struggle has the potential to go on for a while. (UPI, Sept. 2)

The GMMR was recognized early on as a potential strategic lever in the war. The Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) blog reported May 11:

Rumours that the huge underground pipes of the Great Man-Made River Project (GMRP) are hiding Libyan tanks and missiles, have re-emerged during the current conflict. Back in in 1997, the New York Times reported that the US$ 33 billion project, which provides 6.5 million cubic metres a day to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirt and elsewhere, “has some clandestine military purpose”. Now, in April 2011, the Guardian newspaper reported that the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is hiding his armour from NATO air strikes in the irrigation tunnels of the GMRP.

Earlier, the Libyan government warned that the NATO-led air strikes could cause a “human and environmental disaster” if they damaged the GMRP. Engineer and project manager Abdelmajid Gahoud said that three pipelines, one for gas, one for oil and another for water, run underground parallel to the 400-kilometre-long road from the eastern city of Benghazi to Sirte, through an area where there had been many coalition air raids.

Some fringe websites (no mainstream sources we could find) have claimed that the GMMR was actually hit by NATO air-strikes. It does seem clear the Qaddafi forces have now intentionally debilitated it.

The GMMR has been a source of international tensions within Africa. It draws from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, the world’s largest fossil water system, which straddles the borders of Libya, Chad, Egypt and Sudan, covering some two million square kilometers and estimated to contain 150,000 cubic kilometers of groundwater. The diversion of this non-renewable resource north to Libya’s capital has raised concerns about regional ecological impacts. (IPS, May 27)

Qaddafi has also undertaken massive water diversion projects as far away as the Middle Niger Delta in Mali. The Malibya irrigation project there moves water north to massive farms growing grain for export to Libya—but the water withdrawals could impact downstream farmers who depend on the Niger’s annual flooding. Journalist Fred Pearce wrote for Yale University’s Environment360 site on Feb. 3 (ironically, days before the Libyan rebellion broke out):

Mali’s president has agreed to the scheme, which numerous experts say will enhance Libyan food security at the expense of Malian food security by sucking dry the river that feeds the inland delta, diminishing the seasonal floods that support rich biodiversity—and thriving agriculture and fisheries vital to a million of Mali’s poorest citizens — on the edge of the Sahara desert.

“More people will lose than win from most irrigation projects in Mali,” says Jane Madgwick, CEO of Netherlands-based Wetlands International, with whom I traveled for three days in the inner Niger delta. “These projects will decrease food security by damaging the livelihoods of those most vulnerable. What they are trying to do at the moment makes no sense because there is simply not enough water.”

Battle for Bani Walid set to open
NATO warplanes have continued air-strikes around the last three remaining Qaddafi stronghold towns—Sirte, Sebha and Bani Walid—as the NTC forces have waited out a three-day deadline for the Qaddafi loyalists to surrender. The deadline runs out today, but is said to have been extended a week for Sirte, with NTC forces poised to attack Ben Walid imminently. (The Telegraph, Sept. 3; The Guardian, Sept. 2)

See our last posts on Libya, the global struggle for control of oil, and regional struggles for control of water.

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