Land Use and Irrigation

Libya Table of Contents

Although statistics vary, only a very small percentage of Libyan land is arable--probably under 2 percent of total land area. About 4 percent is suitable for grazing livestock and the rest is agriculturally useless desert. Most arable land lies in two places: the Jabal al Akhdar region around Benghazi, and the Jifarah Plain near Tripoli. The highest parts of the Jabal al Akhdar receive between 400 and 600 millimeters of rain annually, whereas the immediately adjacent area, sloping north to the Marj Plain, receives between 200 and f400 millimeters. The central and eastern parts of the Jifarash Plain and the nearby Jabal Nafusah also average between 200 and 400 millimeters of rain annually. The remaining Libyan coastal strip and the areas just to the south of the sectors described average 100 to 200 millimeters of rain yearly. In addition, the Jifarah Plain is endowed with an underground aquifer that has made intensive well-driven irrigation possible. Between these two areas and for a distance of about 50 kilometers south, there is a narrow strip of land that has enough scrub vegetation to support livestock. Desert predominates south of this strip, with only occasional oasis cultivation, such as at Al Kufrah, Sabha, and Marzuq.

Studies published in the late 1970s indicated that at any given time, about one-third of the total arable land remained fallow and that as many as 45 percent of the farms were under 10 hectares. The average farm size was about 11 hectares, although many were fragmented into small, noncontiguous plots. Most farms in the Jifarah Plain were irrigated by individual wells and electric pumps, although in 1985 only about 1 percent of the arable land was irrigated.

Since coming to power in 1969, the Qadhafi government has been very concerned with land reform. Shortly after the revolution, the government confiscated all Italian-owned farms (about 38,000 hectares) and redistributed much of this land in smaller plots to Libyans. The state retained some of the confiscated lands for state farming ventures, but in general the government has not sought to eliminate the private sector from agriculture as it has with commerce. It did, however, take the further step in 1971 of declaring all uncultivated land to be state property. This measure was aimed mainly at certain powerful conservative tribal groups in the Jabal al Akhdar, who had laid claim to large tracts of land. Another law passed in 1977 placed further restriction on tribal systems of land ownership, emphasizing actual use as the deciding factor in determining land ownership. Since 1977 an individual family has been allotted only enough land to satisfy its own requirements; this policy was designed to prevent the development of large-scale private sector farms and to end the practice of using fertile "tribal" lands for grazing rather than cultivation.

Partly as a result of these policies as well as the dictates of Islamic rules of inheritance, which stipulate that each son should receive an equal share of family land upon the father's death, in 1986 Libyan farms tended to be fragmented and too small to make efficient use of water. This problem was especially severe in the long-settled Jifarah Plain, which has been Libya's single most productive agricultural region.

The falling water tables in Libya's best agricultural lands caused by overirrigation posed a severe long-term ecological threat to agriculture. The government began to recognize this in 1976, and took measures to discourage citrus and tomato cultivation, both of which required large amounts of water. However, the more stringent steps required to save the coastal water resources--principally the regulation of irrigation and changing the land tenure system to make it more water-efficient--conflicted with Qadhafi's concept of economic equity, which favored intensive irrigated cultivation of small plots for family use.

The government's overall strategy for dealing with the impending ecological crisis has not been to reform the practices that brought it about. Rather, the cornerstone of agricultural policy since 1983 has been to avert disaster by pumping large quantities of water to the coast from the fossil reserves of the southern desert. This project, the GMMR, was expected to cost US$5 billion for the first two stages and has largely been spared from the cuts in development spending that have delayed many other projects in the 1980s.

The first phase of the GMMR, on which construction began in 1984, called for the construction of a 1,895-kilometer pipeline to carry water from the Sarir and Tazirbu regions to a holding tank at Ajdabiya. From there the water will be pumped to Surt and Benghazi for both agricultural and urban consumption. Planners anticipated a total cost of about US$3.29 billion for this first phase and a completion date sometime in 1989. The first stage is projected to irrigate an area of 20,000 hectares for vegetables, and 50,000 hectares for cereals, and to enable the raising of some 100 head of cattle. A second stage will connect the fossil reserves at Al Kufrah to the system. It will also extend the pipelines from Ajdabiya to Tobruk. Planning for a possible third stage, which would link Tripoli to the underground reserves of the western Fezzan region, and would extend the western coastal terminus from Surt to Tripoli was also under way in 1987.

After completion of the second stage, the GMMR will be capable of delivering up to 5 million cubic meters of water a day. According to estimates, this amount would be sufficient to irrigate 180,000 hectares in the Surt area, to provide pasture for 2 million sheep and 200,000 cattle, and to supply industrial and domestic needs in Benghazi and Tripoli. According to the project's American designers, the Al Kufrah and Sarir aquifers could sustain pumping at this rate for 50 to 100 years without depletion.

Despite planners' optimistic predictions about the benefits of the GMMR, foreign observers doubt that it will resolve the difficulties facing agriculture. Whatever the size of the desert aquifers, they are finite fossil reserves and will not last indefinitely. Furthermore, the major agricultural developments planned for the Surt region will do nothing to stop the declining levels of productivity in the Jifarah Plain. In fact, the choice of Surt as a site for massive agricultural development may have been prompted more by Qadhafi's family roots being there than its suitability for intensive agricultural development. In addition, urban and industrial demand for water from the south is likely to increase as the population continues to grow and as various industrial projects begin operations.

The GMMR's long-term impact on oasis cultivation in the south is also likely to be negative. Many of Libya's showcase agricultural projects are located in the southern oases that depend on the fossil aquifers that the GMMR will tap. Developments at Al Kufrah and Sarir have used advanced irrigation technology to grow wheat and fodder crops. The depletion of the fossil reserves on which these projects depend means that they have little long-term viability. Given the extremely high cost and low yields achieved as of the early 1980s, a re-evaluation of the economic viability of these projects may well occur.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress