Libya’s new government may look beyond oil, to water, as it builds a longer-term economic future for the nation’s young population. An enormous geological store of water, the Nubian Aquifer, sits below Libya, Egypt, Chad and Sudan. It may hold as much as 500 years of the Nile’s flow, most of which accumulated during the Pleistocene epoch, as long as 1 million years ago, according to a United Nations project to conserve the aquifer.
Muammar Qaddafi launched a $25-billion project in the 1980s to tap the Nubian sandstone, in Libya’s southern desert region. Planners wanted to use proceeds of Libya’s vast oil wealth to make the Mediterranean nation a farming powerhouse. Dubbed “The Great Man-Made River Project,” it grew to become some 3,000 miles (5,000 km) of canals and underground piping, connecting more than 1,300 wells. It was designed by the U.S. engineering firm Brown & Root (now Kellogg, Brown & Root LLC).
Nubian Aquifer water has already filled a small number of reservoirs in Libya, with plans to irrigate 130,000 hectares (320,000 acres) and holds nearly a millennium of water at current use rates. That’s a resource that could foster housing booms, new industry or even low water agriculture that has worked for Israel, just to the northeast.