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Life in besieged Tripoli

On 4 April, the Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar reached the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya’s capital. Unable to proceed, the LNA effectively laid siege to the city in the hope that it could take it from the Government of National Accord. To date, neither side has made any significant breakthrough on the battlefield, nor do they show any interest in peace. As is often the case, civilians are caught in the middle. Tripoli, a city of about 2 million people, has thus been under siege for over 100 days.

How do the people trapped in the capital manage their everyday lives? As a Tripoli resident I have been through this sort of thing before, but have missed most of it this time. However, I talk to several residents almost daily.

They complain about two major problems: the lack of fresh water, and lengthy power cuts averaging 12 hour a day in a city where the mean July temperature is around 38 degrees. The lack of other essentials such as cooking gas, fuel, food and medicine is a daily headache. Price hikes, the lack of security and navigating the front lines are also major problems for many people in Tripoli.

Milad Said is a university lecturer who fled his apartment in Salahuddin district. “Life is series of problems but the biggest one is water,” he told me. “We have not had water for over two weeks now.” In a way he is lucky, because he has another house in Bani Walid, south-west of Tripoli, where he moved recently.

According to Musbah Ali, a street vendor of vegetables who used to work and live near Ain Zara, south-east of Tripoli, everything is difficult to take upstairs to his third floor apartment, because there is no lift. From the first week of the siege he lost his job and fled from his house with his family of four. Now he lives with his father in a crowded apartment within Tripoli away from the front line. For drinking water, Ali visits the local mosque twice a day to fill some bottles and containers. Most mosques in Libya have water wells. Ali’s two-year-old daughter has a rare genetic condition crippling her mental and physical development. She can only eat a special type of baby formula which is “too expensive and very hard to find,” he explained.

Since the NATO-backed rebels deposed Muammar Gaddafi’s government eight years ago, Tripoli has seen occasional water cuts but never one like this. This month, the Libyan capital suffered its longest water shut down so far. Without water for almost two full weeks, people like Musbah Ali had to revert to primeval methods to quench their thirsts. Buying bottled water is expensive for the majority of people, particularly in a cash-based economy in which the banking system is unable to provide sufficient liquidity, making it nearly impossible for people to access their accounts.

Although the water problem is only beginning and expected to worsen unless drastic measures are taken without delay, it is actually of a peculiar nature. Seventy per cent of Libya’s fresh water comes from the Great Man Made River (GMMR), a system of pipelines which zigzags about 4,000 kilometres from the south to the north of the country. It is made of pre-stressed concrete pipes, each seven metres long and four metres in diameter, and carries six million cubic metres of fresh water every day. The GMMR is one of the greatest legacies of the late Gaddafi, who was murdered in October 2011. He once described the system as “the eighth wonder of the world.” UNESCO recognised the project as a great achievement, even naming a prize after it which is awarded annually to outstanding irrigation projects.

Work on the GMMR was started in 1984 by drilling couple of hundred water wells in the Sarir Desert, south-east of Benghazi. By 2007, when phase five was finished, a total of 1,300 wells, up to 500 metres deep, were tapping into the huge Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System under the desert. The water is pumped through the enormous pipelines to collection reservoirs along the coast, from where it is connected to the main water system of each city and town. Water for irrigation projects uses a slightly different route.

However, the GMMR has fallen victim to neglect, poor maintenance, a lack of funding and sabotage by gangs stealing its equipment or making illegal connections to its high pressure main lines. Since the 2011 war, the system has been weaponised by tribes who live near the wells. They put pressure on the authorities in Tripoli for essentials like fuel and money in the banks by threatening to cut the water supply. At the height of the war, on 22 July 2011, a NATO air strike hit one of the pipe production plants near Brega, in the east of Libya, killing four guards and disrupting production.

The GMMR also suffers from irregular power supplies to its pumping stations as the national grid is deteriorating. Power shortages, especially in the summer, have been happening for eight years with no solution in sight. The electricity company, like the GMMR management, blames occasional fighting, sabotage and a lack of funding.

Twenty-five kilometres east of Sirte sit two of the GMMR’s major reservoirs, Al Qardabiah Al-Kabeer and Al Qardabiah Al-Saghir, with a capacity of 18.5 and 14.5 million cubic metres of water respectively. Both have been dry for several weeks, according to Al-Mabruk Saleh, an engineer at GMMR’s Sirte branch. “This could damage the internal structure of the reservoirs, meaning huge costs to repair them,” he told me. “As a result, Sirte and nearby farmlands have been without water for over a month.”

According to Saleh, the main problems facing the GMMR management are the lack of equipment due to a lack of funding and, of course, sabotage. “Before 2011,” he explained, “it was impossible to have any unauthorised connection to the system’s main pipes.” All connections had to be studied carefully by the right GMMR department. “Now, though, people do what they like and there is no one to stop them.” He warned that unless security and the rule of law returns to Libya, and funds are made available to the GMMR, the system could be damaged beyond repair.

Meanwhile, by 22 July, water was returning to Tripoli, albeit slowly. It will, inevitably it seems, be cut again for one reason or another.

Zigzagging through the front lines to visit his deserted apartment, Milad Said spoke to me and pointed out that, “Gaddafi, the man who brought us water, is gone and now the water will go too.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Musbah Ali when I contacted him via WhatsApp to check on him. He stopped carrying water to the third floor and told me, “We need a good leader to rally us behind him like Gaddafi did when he built the GMMR… Democracy at this point is not a good thing for us.”

It’s worth mentioning that in the 1980s Libya was under all sorts of embargoes and boycotts, yet not a single penny was borrowed from outside to finance the GMMR’s huge cost of $25 billion. Libya has been brought to its knees, not liberated, since those NATO air strikes in 2011. Life in besieged Tripoli is likely to be a struggle for many years to come.

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