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I.  Background

Before the 1950s Libya was considered one of the driest countries on earth.  It has a vast desert area and dry climate conditions that led to severe water scarcity.  The main source of the water supply in Libya previously came from desalination plants on the coast.  Such plants did not generate enough water to irrigate farmland, however.[1]

In 1953 the Libyan government developed a plan to overcome this dilemma by creating an irrigation system that depends on the underground water found in sandstone aquifers, known as “fossilized water.”  The major reserve of fossilized water was discovered under the aquifers during oil exploration.  During the 1970s the Libyan government began to develop the usage of fossilized water to grow crops in southern Libya and proposed the construction of pipelines to transport water to coastal areas for irrigation.  In 1983, in collaboration with international construction firms, the Libyan government implemented its proposal by forming a national project known as the “Great Man-made River” (GMR).  The project aimed at supplementing the northern desert areas of Libya with a network of water pipelines to enhance farming and irrigation projects.[2]

According to research studies, over the past years the GMR project has significantly increased Libya’s water supply.  Libya was able to create a 4,000 kilometer network of water pipelines, which supply 1.6 million cubic meters of water per day.  The Libyan government stated in 2010 that the project, which was then nearing completion, had cost $19.58 billion and was intended to be used to develop 395,000 acres of farmland.[3]  The Libyan Ministry of Agriculture announced the same year that there were plans for the GMR to supply 6 million cubic meters of water per day by 2030.[4]

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II.  Legal Framework

Law No. 3-1982 on regulating water sources, issued January 5, 1982, is the main legislation governing the issue of water usage for agricultural and drinking purposes.[5]  Article 5 of the law grants Libyan citizens the right to use water resources so long as they do not damage those resources.  Article 5(b) requires a permit from public water authorities to use the water for drinking or farming.  Under article 6, dumping any liquid waste into water resources is prohibited.  Article 7 prohibits drilling water wells without a permit from the Public Authority of Agricultural Development.

The Law also covers the issue of water management.  Article 7(c) grants the right to the Public Authority of Agricultural Development to confiscate any unused wells.  In addition, article 7(c) grants the Water Authority the right to issue orders to close producing wells.  The Law also sets forth requirements for obtaining licenses to use water resources.  Article 8 limits the usage of water resources to drinking, agricultural uses, and industrial uses.  Article 10 allows the Public Authority of Agricultural Development to grant multiple individuals the right to use the same water resource.  However, article 11 prohibits an individual using a water resource from dumping any waste in it or causing any damages to it.

Finally, article 15 of the law punishes violators with a term of imprisonment of not less than three months or a fine not to exceed 500 Libyan dinars (about US$385).  The court has discretion to impose either or both penalties.

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III.  Intercountry Disputes Concerning the Use of Water

An academic study issued by Yale University in 2011 reported that the Governor of the Deboye District in Mali had accused the Libyan authorities of attempting to divert the Niger River to increase farmland areas at the expense of the Niger Delta.  The governor claimed that Libyan corporations began construction of a project on the soil of Mali to divert large amount of water from the Niger River.  He also argued that such a project would dry the river that feeds the inland delta and destroy the seasonal floods supporting agriculture and fisheries in those areas.[6]

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Prepared by George Sadek
Senior Legal Research Analyst
October 2013

[1] The Great Man-made River Project, Meed Insight (Dec. 11, 2011), 2011/12/11/Sample%20Chapter.pdf.

[2] Hussin Aqeil et al., Water Security and Interconnected Challenges in Libya (TinMore Institute, Nov. 2012),

[3] Sarah A. Topol, Libya’s Qaddafi Taps Fossil Water to Irrigate Desert Farms, The Christian Science Monitor (Aug. 23, 2010),

[4] Meed Insight, supra note 1.

[5] Law No. 3-1982, Al-Jaridah Al-Rasmiyya, vol. 10, 6 April 1982.

[6] Fred Pearce, Africa’s Flourishing Niger Delta Threatened by Libya Water Plan, Environment 360 (Feb. 3, 2011),

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Last Updated: 12/31/2020