The military targeting of civilian infrastructure, especially of water supplies, is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Yet this is precisely what NATO did in Libya, while blaming the damage on Gaddafi himself. Since then, the country’s water infrastructure – and the suffering of its people – has only deteriorated further.
Numerous reports comment on the water crisis that is escalating across Libya as consumption outpaces production. Some have noted the environmental context in regional water scarcity due to climate change.
But what they ignore is the fact that the complex national irrigation system that had been carefully built and maintained over decades to overcome this problem was targeted and disrupted by NATO.
During the 2011 military invasion, press reports surfaced, mostly citing pro-rebel sources, claiming that pro-Gaddafi loyalists had shut down the water supply system as a mechanism to win the war and punish civilians.
This is a lie.
But truth, after all, is the first casualty of war – especially for mainstream media journos who can’t be bothered to fact-check the claims of people they interview in war zones, while under pressure from editors to produce copy that doesn’t rock too many boats.
Critical Water Installations Bombed – Then Blamed on Gaddafi
It was in fact NATO which debilitated Libya’s water supply by targeting critical state-owned water installations, including a water-pipe factory in Brega.
The factory, one of just two in the country (the other one being in Gaddafi’s home-town of Sirte), manufactured pre-stressed concrete cylinder pipes for the Great Manmade River (GMR) project, an ingenious irrigation system transporting water from aquifers beneath Libya’s southern desert to about 70% of the population.
On 18th July, a rebel commander boasted that some of Gaddafi’s troops had holed up in industrial facilities in Brega, but that rebels had blocked their access to water: “Their food and water supplies are cut and they now will not be able to sleep.”
In other words, the rebels, not Gaddafi loyalists, had sabotaged the GMR water pipeline into Brega. On 22nd July, NATO followed up by bombing the Brega water-pipes factory on the pretext that it was a Gaddafi “military storage” facility concealing rocket launchers.
“Major parts of the plant have been damaged”, said Abdel-Hakim el-Shwehdy, head of the company running the project. “There could be major setback for the future projects.”
Legitimate Military Target Left Untouched in the Attack
When asked to provide concrete evidence of Gaddafi loyalists firing from inside the water-pipe factory, NATO officials failed to answer. Instead, NATO satellite images shown to journalists confirm that a BM-21 rocket launcher identified near the facility days earlier, remained perfectly intact the day after the NATO attack.
Earlier, NATO forces had already bombed water facilities in Sirte, killing several “employees of the state water utility who were working during the attack.”
By August, UNICEF reported that the conflict had “put the Great Manmade River Authority, the primary distributor of potable water in Libya, at risk of failing to meet the country’s water needs.”
The same month, Agence France Presse reported that the GMR “could be crippled by the lack of spare parts and chemicals” – reinforced by NATO’s destruction of water installations critical to the GMR in Sirte and Brega.
The GMR is now “struggling to keep reservoirs at a level that can provide a sustainable supply”, UN officials said. “If the project were to fail, agencies fear a massive humanitarian emergency.”
Christian Balslev-Olesen, UNICEF Libya’s head of office, warned that the city faced “an absolute worst-case scenario” that “could turn into an unprecedented health epidemic” without resumption of water supplies.
Stratfor Email: “So Much Shit Doesn’t Add Up Here”
While pro-rebel sources attempted to blame Gaddafi loyalists for the disruption of Libya’s water supply, leaked emails from the US intelligence contractor Stratfor, which publicly endorsed these sources, show that the firm privately doubted its own claims.
“So much shit doesn’t add up here”, wrote Bayless Parsley, Stratfor’s Middle East analyst, in an email to executives. “I am pretty much not confident in ANY of the sources … If anything, just need to be very clear how contradictory all the information is on this project … a lot of the conclusions drawn from it are not really air tight.”
But the private US intelligence firm, which has played a key role in liaising with senior Pentagon officials in facilitating military intelligence operations, was keenly aware of what the shutdown of the GMR would mean for Libya’s population:
“Since the first phase of the ‘river’s’ construction in 1991, Libya’s population has doubled. Remove that river and, well, there would likely be a very rapid natural correction back to normal carrying capacities.”
“How often do Libyans bathe? You’d have drinking water for a month if you skipped a shower”, joked Kevin Stech, a Stratfor research director. “Seriously. Cut the baths and the showers and your well water should suffice for drinking and less-than-optional hygiene.”
The Truth – Government Officials Were Trying to Keep Water Flowing
Meanwhile, UNICEF confirmed that Libyan government officials were not sabotaging water facilities, but in fact working closely with a UN technical team to “facilitate an assessment of water wells, review urgent response options and identify alternatives for water sources.”
Nevertheless, by September, UNICEF reported that the disruption to the GMR had left 4 million Libyans without potable water.
The GMR remains disrupted to this day, and Libya’s national water crisis continues to escalate.
The deliberate destruction of a nation’s water infrastructure, with the knowledge that doing so would result in massive deaths of the population as a direct consequence, is not simply a war crime, but potentially a genocidal strategy.
It raises serious questions about the conventional mythology of a clean, humanitarian war in Libya – questions that mainstream journalists appear to be uninterested in, or unable to ask.