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Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

Irrigation potential has been estimated at 750 000 ha relying mostly on fossil water, but when considering renewable water resources, it decreases to 40 000 ha in the coastal areas (FAO, 1997).

Irrigation in Libya dates back to at least 500 years before the current era with the Garamantes, Saharan Berber people in the Fezzan area (Libya’s southwestern region), who used an elaborate underground irrigation system to crop oases in the desert. Foggara, or underground channels directed water from aquifers to their farms through thousands of kilometres of tunnels. Regular vertical wells enabled maintenance of these channels. During the Roman era, Libya was the breadbasket of the empire using rain-derived run-off irrigation (Otman and Karlberg, 2007). In the 9th century, emirs of the Islamic Aghlabid dynasty repaired the Roman irrigation systems, bringing prosperity from agricultural surplus. In the early 20th century, Italians tried to develop agriculture during their colonisation of Libya, but even more massive amounts were spent on irrigated agriculture after its independence in 1947. As a result, more intensive irrigated farming developed rapidly from the 1960s onwards using shallow groundwater along the coast, but remained subsistence agriculture by the end of 1960s. Huge efforts and funds were deployed in the 1970s and 1980s to develop irrigation using local aquifer in the coastal areas (Otman and Karlberg, 2007). In particular, two research projects, the Kufra and Jefara wheat projects, used pressurized irrigation and water from the underlying aquifers but were abandoned in the late 1970s.

In 2000, the total area equipped for irrigation was approximately 470 000 ha, of which 316 000 ha was estimated to be actually irrigated, although this figure may be underestimated. Almost the entire area was equipped with sprinkler irrigation systems and used groundwater on 99 percent of the area, just a little treated wastewater and surface water was used on the remaining areas. With a total harvested irrigated area estimated at 406 000 ha in 2000, the cropping intensity was 129 percent.

There were three different categories of farming in the irrigation sub-sector:

  • Private irrigation, generally on 1-5 ha plots, which receives substantial state support for water equipment, energy, and agricultural inputs. This type of farming is mostly concentrated in the traditional development areas, i.e. the Jifarah plain, the Jabal al Akhdar, and the Murzuq basin, and the actually irrigated area was about 257 000 ha in 2000, which was 81 percent of the total actually irrigated area in that year.
  • Large-scale state farming, mainly located in the southern areas, where new irrigation schemes have been set up based on highly productive deep wells supplying water to blocks divided into small plots and cultivated by small-scale farmers.
  • Large-scale state farming, mainly located in the desert areas (usually pivot systems), operated by state technicians and workers.

In 2008, although the total area equipped for irrigation decreased to 400 000 ha, the area actually irrigated increased to 335 000 ha (CEDARE, 2014). Decrease in the traditional irrigated areas on the coast results from (MWR and CEDARE, 2014):

  • Limited water near the coast due to poor water quality and lowering of the water tables
  • Neglect and deterioration of many large-scale government public irrigation schemes
  • Encroachment of urban areas at the expense of the irrigated areas

On the other hand, new irrigation is being developed by the private sector using large pivots and drilling their own wells, up to 1 000 m deep (MWR and CEDARE, 2014). Apart from public supply wells associated with government production and settlement projects, all other wells are privately owned. In the so-called “settlement projects” each well serves a number of farms through an integrated irrigation network (CEDARE, 2014). The private farming sector is growing rapidly and is responsible for more than 80 percent of irrigated agriculture. Typical farms of 50 ha and more are to be found, well equipped with modern irrigation technologies and well adapted to the local market (FAO, 2009).

The Al Khadra irrigation development project, started in 2002 through a joint venture between American companies and the Libyan government with its the Great Manmade River Water Utilization Authority (GMRWUA), is an example of this expanding private irrigated farming. Initiated with 1 000 ha in the Benghazi area using mobile irrigation equipment, it expanded to 10 000 ha there, as well as 5 000 ha in the Sirte area, and 1 200 ha in Tarhona south of Tripoli. It grows a wide range a crops: cereals (wheat, barley, oat, maize), fodder (alfalfa and grass hay), fruits (grapes, peaches, pears and apricots), potatoes, and olives.

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society

Yields from rainfed as well as irrigated agriculture are generally low. Apart from the aridity of the climate which reduces rainfed yields, this is due to prevailing shallow, coarse soils with limited natural fertility and high erosion risks. The average yield of irrigated wheat and barley is much lower than the yields obtained in other Mediterranean countries. The yields for irrigated fruits, vegetables and oil crops are generally also lower than in the surrounding countries but for these crops the differences are smaller. The main irrigated crops are cereals (wheat and barley), olives, fodder (mainly berseem cultivated in winter) and vegetables.

Given the arid nature of much of Libya, irrigated farming systems have always been of crucial importance in generating much of the country’s agricultural output. About 50 percent of the cereal production and about 90 percent of the fruit and vegetable production originate from irrigated agriculture.

Food security is felt as a moral imperative for the Libyan leaders and huge efforts were made in the 1970s and 1980s to develop irrigated agriculture based on local water resources, and in the 1990s to create the conditions for the rehabilitation and development of the coastal agriculture through water transport from the south to the north. However, food security is distinctly different from food self-sufficiency which is now impossible and will be more and more difficult to achieve in Libya. A debated question is whether irrigation, mostly the one based on costly water transfer, remains justified in a situation of water scarcity where the only source of water is non-renewable groundwater and where economic returns from other sectors (oil industry) would allow an easy access to the international food market.

Women and irrigation

In 2005-2007, about two thirds of the agricultural workforce were women (WFP, FAO, 2011). However, due to the lack of community involvement in irrigation and water management, there is no detailed information available about irrigators in general and about how many women may actually practice irrigation in particular. Workers on the large-scale private and state farming are traditionally in large part male migrants, but the situation might have evolved recently after the departure of many migrants since the 2011 events.

Status and evolution of drainage systems

In Libya, only about 9 000 ha is estimated to be equipped with some form of drainage in 2000. This is mainly due to the lack of experience in the country and the resulting high cost of drainage installation. Despite the fact that most of the area under irrigation uses sprinkler irrigation, the extent of the salinization issue, 190 000 ha in 1998 and probably higher with the increasing groundwater salinity level, would require more widespread drainage systems.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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