Water, Libya's liquid gold


The emergence of the first truly global pandemic has plunged us into a deep, bad sleep, from which we are not yet quite sure how to escape. Human beings tend to take mental shortcuts in order to simplify problems whose complexity puzzles us, and that is why we have resorted to the use of war rhetoric in order to believe that this way we can better understand an overwhelming situation. Terms such as "enemy", "shield", "war", "trench" and "victory" have been used profusely to thread together a sensationalist rhetoric, which has put lyrics to the imposition of exceptional measures, focused on the here and now, which have left the future for a better occasion, and which risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The truth is that - to paraphrase the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso - when we wake up, the old problems, the proverbial dinosaur in his story, will still be here. And they will also be accompanied by new ones, however much we may feel that the past, present and future have suddenly ceased to have any meaning.

Not only have the actual conflagrations not ceased, but the international chaos caused by the COVID-19 has been exploited by warlords and totalitarian regimes to take advantage of global paralysis, in many cases undoing progress in development, and aggravating other situations that were already intolerable. One of the many dimensions of the Libyan conflict is the existence on its territory of the world's largest fossil water reserve, a deposit discovered in the 1950s in the desert region of Al-Kufrah, and which forms part of the Nubian Aquifer System, a virtually inexhaustible water resource. 

During Gaddafi's time, a pipeline system was developed, which is strategically vital for the supply of running, irrigation, and industrial water to cities on the Libyan coast. Therefore, the control of this territorial area in south-eastern Libya has a specific geostrategic weight, which is part of the calculations of all contenders and stakeholders in Libya. To get a broader idea of why this is so, it is enough to look at UNESCO's statistics on access to potable water, from which 40% of the world's population is excluded, in other words, 3 billion people, with Africa being a particularly bloody case. Beyond the undeniable incentive of the control of Libyan hydrocarbons, Libyan water capacity will convert those who possess it into a plus of power for those who hold it, and not a small influence on the African continent.

An essential component of entities such as the Muslim Brothers is the 'khayr', its social aspect, based on the creation of assistance networks in which they aspire to build a 'virtuous society'. Few elements have as much impact on improving public welfare as implementing the infrastructure required to provide clean water. For every euro invested in piped water and sanitation, an average of 5 euros is saved from the expenditure that is now detracted from investments in economic and social development. 

The risks associated with sectarian-based organisations gaining a monopoly on a resource such as that provided by the Nubian Aquifers are obvious: in the absence of supranational organisations equipped with instruments to guarantee regulated and equitable access to drinking water, human rights such as the right to life, health and food, cease to be substantive and become subsidiary and are left to the discretion of those who control the water. 

The provision of running water as a lever to raise the quality of life of hundreds of billions of people in North Africa, in order to meet their legitimate human aspirations, is a Herculean task, which requires the development of safe and sustainable water infrastructure in the long term. Without a consensus based on regional, regional understanding and cooperation, this effort will be reduced to the existence of a kind of water cartel that will allow its members to dictate the policies of the area through the hoarding of water. It is more than doubtful that this is avoidable, given the lack of a legislative framework under which international collaboration and the exchange of knowledge can bear fruit, and the state of shock in which the most developed countries find themselves, which are being forced to resuscitate their economies, inducing the governments of these countries to put the lights out, making good the maxim that charity begins at home and leaving good causes outside for another day. 

The intrinsic risk of this withdrawal is to overlook the impact that the multiple simultaneous shocks arising from the pandemic will have on countries that have a much more fragile baseline, and in few places is this more true than in Africa: The consequence of this shift in priorities in the West is that the disconnection of the most disadvantaged countries pushes them to use more of what they have to address the effects of COVID-19, diverting resources away from endemic health problems such as Ebola, dengue fever, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis; all of which are accentuated by poor hygiene resulting from the lack of piped water supply systems. Hence, control of water becomes a determining factor in securing power.

Thus, while the fall in GDP in developed countries leads to an increase in relative poverty, in African countries it is absolute poverty that is increasing, with lethal effects on their population. But this is not something that happens in a vacuum; the communicating vessels between the north and south of the Mediterranean are more fluid than the European countries seem willing to admit, something that raises uncomfortable questions of moral responsibility: the expected contraction of economic production in advanced economies will result in the poorest countries suffering a loss of income from exports, as well as from the fall in remittances that migrant workers send back to their countries of origin, which the World Bank estimates at 20%. 

The more the countries of Europe close in on themselves, the more severe will be the spiral of economic and social decline in poor countries, accelerating capital flight and the devaluation of their currencies, with the consequent rise in the cost of repaying their foreign debt, and the inevitable reduction in the resources available to make progress towards Agenda 2020. And the warlords will become stronger as they gain control of the most vital resources.

As we said at the beginning, when we wake up from the bad dream, the problems of before will still be here, and they will place before us ethical dilemmas that can hardly be resolved without finding a middle ground between endless discussions and complacent consensus. Once the unimaginable has already taken place as a pandemic, perhaps the time has come to think the unthinkable by speeding up the establishment of global governance structures with the capacity not only to alleviate the real damage that the cessation of economic activity does to the most disadvantaged, but also to put the spotlight back on and act to prevent totalitarianism from instrumentalising the exploitation of natural resources such as those available in Libya in its favour.