With source of water still in Gadhafi hands, Tripoli goes thirsty

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 29, 2011 

SAID AL SIAH, Libya — Water is in short supply in Tripoli, Libya's newly liberated capital, and from here it's easy to see why: the massive storage tank, part of the network that supplies water to the capital from a huge underground aquifer in southern Libya, is nearly empty.

And this storage facility lies just 25 miles south of Tripoli. The real problem, say rebel leaders, lies much further away, in Hasouna, 400 miles to the south, which forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi still control. They've turned off the tap, not just to Tripoli but to many of Libya's cities.

As water lines run dry and prices for bottled water skyrocket, Tripoli's burgeoning water crisis reveals the limitations of the rebel leadership, which still must consolidate its control over vast parts of the country even as it tries to exert its authority over a shortage-plagued capital.

While Tripoli has been mostly cleared of serious pro-Gadhafi resistance, much of the country to the south lies outside rebel control, and that means that not just water supplies, but also refineries and oilfields, have yet to be secured. Rebel leaders offer no estimates for how quickly that might be accomplished.

Fakher Badr, a member of the rebel National Transitional Council's stabilization team in Tripoli, said that he knew of no plans for securing southern oil and water facilities, and that his committee was only just beginning its work after arriving in Tripoli last week.

For now, he said, trucking in bottled water will have to do.

"Workers shut down the well near Hasouna," he said.

Tripoli and most of Libya's coastal cities draw their water from what's known as the Great Man-made River, a massive system of pumps and pipelines that Gadhafi began constructing in 1984 to tap massive stores of fresh water that oil exploration had discovered beneath the Sahara Desert.

The connection to Tripoli was completed in 1996 — there are still phases being built in what is often billed as the world's largest engineering project. Until recently what Libyans call the "underground river" was delivering 264 million gallons of water a day to the capital.

Gadhafi called it the eighth wonder of the world. An American company, Brown and Root, now KBR, did the initial design and construction.

But with the wells that tap the aquifer outside of rebel control, the water is no longer flowing north.

Even here, rebel fighters approached the storage tank with caution, fearing that pro-Gadhafi fighters still might be lurking nearby.

The gate in the fence surrounding the massive storage tank — essentially a covered concrete box, roughly 200 yards square and 50 feet deep — was open, but the complex was deserted. Rebel fighters in the area expressed pride that the complex had not been looted.

"The people in this area are with us," said Abdel Kader, one of the fighters.

But even if the workers at the storage facility were to return, there would be little for them to do without water flowing from the well field hundreds of miles away.

A shipment of bottled water, trucked in from Tunisia over the weekend, provided a temporary respite, though it was selling in some places for up to six times the pre-revolution price.

Those supplies, however, are unlikely to meet the needs of bathing and cleaning in a city of more than 1 million.

"This is a national emergency," said Badr of the National Transitional Council stabilization team. "We need help with drinking water."

Badr reiterated the council's request that the former Libyan government's assets in foreign banks, largely frozen after the rebellion against Gadhafi began in February, be released to the National Transitional Council.

"We need our assets unfrozen so we can buy food and what we need," Badr said. "We have cash sitting in the United Kingdom."

Meanwhile, residents of Tripoli are coping as best they can.

Adel Khalifa, a Tripoli taxi driver, said that until water is restored, he's relying on what he'd stored under his house before Gadhafi fell.

"We were expecting a water shortage, so we also filled the reservoir under our house," Khalifa said.

Nadia Tarhouni, who lives in downtown Tripoli, has been buying bottled water, but she says she won't be able to do that forever.

"We are running out of money," she said. "We are waiting for people to bring us water."

Salem Kilani, who lives in Tripoli's suburbs, said supplies have arrived in tanker trucks from other cities whose wells lie inside rebel lines. As for the well at his house, "the water is not drinkable," he said.

Even as water supplies remained scarce, gasoline appeared to be more abundant, helped by a shipment of more than 7 million gallons that was delivered Sunday by tanker to storage tanks in Zawiya, 20 miles west of Tripoli. Another ship carrying diesel fuel is expected to arrive Tuesday.

Still, lines were hours long at Tripoli gas stations, where gasoline was selling for less than 72 cents a gallon. To skip the wait, motorists were paying 30 times that on the black market.

And it was uncertain when gasoline would once again be flowing from the Zawiyah refinery, which in ordinary times was the primary source for Tripoli residents. The Sharara oilfield that supplies the refinery also lies outside rebel control.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Mohamed el Buaishi contributed to this report.)

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