On 22 July 2011, NATO warplanes attacked a pipe-production plant at Brega in Libya as part of the coalition operation against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Four days later, during a press conference, a NATO colonel insisted that pro-Gaddafi forces were using the site to hide military material including multiple rocket launchers, but he neglected to inform the assembled journalists that the “concrete factory” played an absolutely crucial role in preserving Libya’s water supply.
95% of Libya is desert and a huge proportion of the Libyan population depends on water which is piped in from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System by means of the Great Man-Made River Project (GMRP), a water pipe infrastructure described by many Libyans as “the eighth wonder of the world”. The Brega factory was a key part of the infrastructure, producing pre-stressed concrete cylinder pipes enabling leaks and breaks in the system to be repaired.
In the 1950s and 1960s, coastal aquifers had become contaminated with sea water, to the extent that the water in Benghazi became undrinkable. Finding a supply of fresh, clean water became an urgent national priority. Fortunately, oil exploration in 1953 had revealed vast aquifers beneath Libya’s southern desert. In August 1984, Gaddafi laid the foundation stone for the plant at Brega and the Great Man-Made River Project got underway. The project was owned by the GMRP Authority and was funded by the Gaddafi government. The work was completed without any external financial support or loans from world banks.
On 3 April 2011, Libya warned that NATO-led air strikes could cause a “human and environmental disaster” if they caused damage to the Great Man-Made River Project. Engineer and project manager Abdelmajid Gahoud told foreign journalists in Tripoli: “If part of the infrastructure is damaged, the whole thing is affected and the massive escape of water could cause a catastrophe.” Potentially, 4.5 million Libyans would be deprived of drinking water.
The warnings were ignored. Libyan rebels sabotaged the GMR water pipeline into Brega and NATO went ahead and targeted critical state-owned water installations, including the Brega plant and facilities in Sirte. A water crisis escalated across the country as consumption quickly outpaced production. By August, UNICEF reported that the conflict had “put the Great Manmade River Authority, the primary distributor of potable water in Libya, at risk of failing to meet the country’s water needs.”
It raises serious questions about NATO’s conventional mythology of a “humanitarian intervention” in Libya and it serves as an ugly reminder of how far the alliance was prepared to stretch its United Nations mandate to protect civilians. Serious violations of the IHL (International Humanitarian Law) are war crimes and the deliberate destruction of a country’s water infrastructure, threatening civilian deaths on a vast scale, must be considered a potentially genocidal strategy. Article 54 of the IHL (Protocol I) prohibits attacking, destroying, removing, or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. It defines ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population’ as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works.
The GMRP remains disrupted to this day, and Libya’s water crisis continues to escalate.