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Libya: The impact of water scarcity on Amazigh communities in the Nafusa mountain region

20 June 2023

Libya, a country that has been experiencing multiple political crises for over a decade, is currently going through a series of environmental challenges that directly affect people’s quality of life. During the past few years, Libya has witnessed a major wave of climate-related challenges, including an unprecedented rise in temperatures accompanied by extreme weather events, such as high winds and sandstorms, with a noticeable reduction in annual rainfall and increased drought. Extreme weather events have become a reality for people trying to cope with climate change. Matters are made worse given the lack of action by successive governments.  

One of the most visible problems in Libya is the multiple water crises, which are expected to worsen in the near future.‎ The water shortage in Libya affects 4 million people, especially minority and indigenous communities. According to the World Resources Institute, Libya ranks as the most water-stressed country in North Africa. Water stress indices are labelled ‘extremely high’. This is partly due to the fact Libya relies almost entirely on groundwater, which accounts for over 90 per cent of all water usage. Unfortunately, water scarcity in Libya is not limited to a specific region of the country but extends to many parts, both urban and rural – making this a nationwide issue. One of the regions that has been struggling with water scarcity most is the Nafusa mountain region, where indigenous Amazigh communities reside. The Nafusa is a mountain range that lies to the south-west of Tripoli and extends to the Tunisian border. Amazigh people rely on clean water for agriculture and grazing.  

Water availability and accessibility have been an issue for decades, as the mountain region is not entirely connected to the Great Man-Made River Project (GMMRP), Libya’s main water supplier, which depends on groundwater aquifers. The GMMRP extracts water from deep fossil aquifers in the south, and then delivers it to coastal areas through a network of pipes. It has been in operation since the early 1980s and is branded as one of the biggest engineering projects in the history of the country. Notwithstanding government pride in this mega infrastructure, because of the over-exploitation of the fossil aquifers it is predicted that Libya will run out of water in the next 60 to 100 years.

The effect of drought and water scracity is visible on the trees and land. Credit: Abdurrauf Ben Madi.

The ongoing reality of Amazigh communities in the Nafusa mountains is that they depend on water wells and lorries that bring water to the villages, a service that has increased in price in recent years. The problem became considerably more acute after 2011, following insecurity and conflict in Amazigh-populated areas, partly driven by the deteriorating water infrastructure.  

The impact of climate change has been felt strongly in different parts of the Nafusa mountains including the towns of Yefren, Gala’a, Kabaw, Nalut and Jadu. It has been reported that winter is no longer as cold as it used to be, with higher temperatures and increased dryness also reported in the summer. In the past few years, wildfires have become a regular occurrence in places like Yefren. While winter has become more moderate and rainfall levels have drastically decreased, the region continues to depend on a steady water supply to sustain its agricultural economy. Nafusa Amazigh communities depend on crops such as olives, figs, grapes and almonds.  

Given the nature of the Nafusa region, digging down to deep groundwater aquifers is very costly and most often ineffective. Thus, many Amazigh communities rely primarily on water tankers associated with the GMMRP network. There are too few tankers and they do not deliver to the majority of the mountain villages where Amazigh people live. Although the tankers have been in use since before 2011, the increasing demand for water has led to soaring prices, making it difficult for members of Amazigh communities to afford it.  

Amazighs in Libya have shown enormous strength in the face of many historical challenges, but the present crisis poses unprecedented economic challenges and the imposition of a development model that threatens both the economic livelihoods of communities and the social, cultural and spiritual values of Libya’s Amazigh people.

Najiya Alosta is a former member of Al-Qala’a municipal council and a civil society activist from the Amazigh community of Al-Qala’a. She explains: ‘Before the revolution, the price of one to two-month water supply from the tanker for a single family was between 30–35 Libyan dinars [LYD; around US$42.35, when US$1 was about LYD 1.21]. However, the price of the tanker has now reached 120 Libyan dinars.’ The economic situation has worsened, putting added pressure on ordinary citizens in the mountains, who simply have no means to afford water that was once freely available in their ancestral lands.  

In Jadu, a town in the central region of the Nafusa mountains, most of those who have farms have dug ditches on their land and filled them with water from tankers. This form of makeshift irrigation is very labour intensive and has not been entirely successful or sustainable. As a result, the success rate of annual harvests is considered low. ‘The water coming from the GMMRP has only recently reached our town, but it hasn’t been effective and it is not continuous. They open the network occasionally and people get to fill their well, which makes water usage daunting,’ explains Alaa, a 27-year-old citizen from Jadu.  

Growing anxiety over water in indigenous mountain communities is also underpinned by a lack of action by local authorities, who have failed to compensate or support people across various districts. The Libyan government has not provided subsidies to reduce the price of water from the tankers, nor indeed developed any stable water infrastructure that could enhance the availability and quality of water supply to different districts around the Nafusa mountains. Moreover, the absence of the state in monitoring and regulating the water sector raises questions around the profiteering scandal that underpins the water crisis in Nafusa, as well as the discrimination faced by Amazigh populations as a result of the GMMRP’s commercial interests, given possible collusion between the state and the private sector. The lack of accountability and transparency, especially in terms of combating corruption at various levels of government, has only worsened in recent years. 

Water tanks line up and by a gas station to be filled up during a shortage of diesel. Credit: Abdurrauf Ben Madi.

Governing bodies such as the Ministry of Water Resources must establish communication channels with Amazigh communities and local water experts in the region, to develop plans and alternative solutions to the problem. Water scarcity in the Nafusa mountains is a complex issue, but with renewed efforts, it is possible to find alternatives that can alleviate the burden and suffering of Amazigh communities.  

Amazigh communities in Nafusa mountains have followed ancient water management practices such as agdal, which is an ancient Amazigh word meaning ‘precinct’ or ‘watered garden’. Agdal is a collective land use system based on the cyclical use of grazing land, a small family-sustenance approach to water use as opposed to an extractive mentality, and, above all, a set of deep social and moral values that focus on the tending and stewardship of fertile and water-rich lands. Ancient traditions such as the agdal have helped Amazigh communities over thousands of years to collect and store water supplies for long periods of time during rainy seasons, and to thrive in relatively harsh conditions.  

Traditional methods and tools for the stewardship and responsible use of water have helped the indigenous populations of the Nafusa build resilient communities that are aware of their water consumption. Amazighs in Libya have shown enormous strength in the face of many historical challenges, but the present crisis poses unprecedented economic challenges and the imposition of a development model that threatens both the economic livelihoods of communities and the social, cultural and spiritual values of Libya’s Amazigh people.

An Amazigh man from Jadu overlooks the Nafusa mountain region. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza.

Photo: An Amazigh water tanker truck driver delivers water to a house. Credit: Abdurrauf Ben Madi.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Malak Altaeb