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A customer fills bottles at a shop that sells filtered municipal water in Tripoli.
A customer fills bottles at a shop that sells filtered municipal water in Tripoli.

The mission to restore Tripoli's water

The Libyan rebels were confronted with a mystery on taking control of Tripoli: why had its water stopped flowing? Watch video

Shortly after the fall of Tripoli, the Libyan rebels embarked on a covert mission that would require the help of Nato and a convoy of unmarked vehicles. Their goal was to restore a resource that had mysteriously disappeared from the capital.

"What happened with the water is a bit of a strange story," Faisel Gergab, the rebels' operations manager in Tripoli, said during a visit to Dubai.

Mr Gergab, a youthful man in glasses who looks more suited to being in a university library than coordinating a secret mission in a conflict zone, was one of the Libyans who tried to make Tripoli functional again after six months of civil war.

When rebels took control on August 19, the capital was desperately in need of petrol, power and communications lines. Rebels set to work restoring services, but the water, which stopped flowing in parts of Tripoli just as the rebels moved in, proved a major challenge.

Explanations for the shortage abounded. Some residents told reporters the rebels had cut off the supply out of fear that retreating forces loyal to the deposed Muammar Qaddafi had poisoned it. Meanwhile a rebel official accused the loyalists of damaging the pumps. Still others attributed the shutdown to a technical problem that would be dangerous to fix.

In any case, Mr Gergab and others in Tripoli knew the problem had to be remedied as soon as possible.

"You can live without electricity for a while," said Bob Bryniak, the chief executive of the utilities-focused Golden Sands Management Consulting. "But you've got to get the water up as quickly as possible."

Libya's economy is closely intertwined with oil, which with natural gas, accounted for nearly all of the government's revenue before the uprising began in February. The origin of the country's water is also nearly inseparable from oil.

In the 1950s, explorers began drilling Libya's desert for fossil fuels. Their search for black gold yielded another jackpot: an immense reservoir of water.

By 1983, Col Qaddafi began building what he said would be a US$25 billion (Dh91.82bn) network of pumps, storage tanks and 4,000km of pipeline to bring the water to the surface and distribute it to farms and cities.

The Great Manmade River or Eighth Wonder of the World, Col Qaddafi's two names for it, was only half-complete when the uprising began this year, according to a member of the government body in charge of it. In August, the Great Manmade River stopped flowing to Tripoli.

To fill the gap, the UN shipped 11 million litres of water, which the rebels distributed to the city's 650 mosques.

In the meanwhile, rebel engineers realised their problem lay 750km south of Tripoli in the city of Sabha, where 475 wells had stopped pumping water because of power cuts and would need to be reset by hand.

But engineers in Tripoli had no one to communicate with in the control rooms in Sabha because retreating loyalist troops scared away the water employees, said Mr Gergab. The engineers in Tripoli would have to go in themselves.

Four engineers from a nearby area arrived first to scout Sabha, as Nato watched from overhead. A second team armed with supplies left Tripoli on August 29.

In the following week, the water began flowing again. Mr Gergab has moved on to another role. His task? To help make Libya's oil flow again.



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