The Sky Broke Like An Egg

Drought has always been a part of the African life: between the dry climate in most of the continent and the scarcity of fresh water supplies, sub-Saharan Africa has the most water-stressed countries in the world. The continent hosts two of earth’s largest deserts: the Sahara and the Kalahari.

The Sahara covers parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara, spanning over 9,400,000 square kilometers (3,600,000 sq miles), comparable to the entire land mass of USA and China, making it the world’s largest hot desert, and is home to around 2.5 million people.


Not surprisingly then, the supply of fresh water is a constant priority. In 1953, in their search for new oilfields, the Libyan government discovered vast quantities of fresh water in four aquifers, trapped in the strata underlying oil reserves. This fossilized water is considered to be between 7,000 and 38,000 years old. When Muammar Gaddafi came to power, he launched an ambitious plan to create what Libyans called the eighth wonder of the world: the Great Man-Made River Project (GMRP). Gaddafi understood that being able to provide his people with potable water meant further independence from developmental colonialism, and an opportunity to build an infrastructure that would guarantee life to the Libyan people. No loans were needed, and construction began in 1984.

It may have seemed to some around the world the dream of a megalomaniac, but to Gaddafi, access to drinking water was a basic human right, and in a country that seldom sees rain (seldom in this case being every 5 to 10 years), providing water to Libyans was not merely a way to garner their support; it was essential to survival.

By 2011, three phases had been completed, supplying water to regions around Benghazi, Sirte, Tripoli, and the western belt of Libya. A 4,000 kilometer network of pipes, buried below the desert to prevent evaporation, allowed irrigation of around 155,000 hectares of land. The changes to people’s quality of life was marked.

The damage done to this project by NATO bombing in March 2011, where the factory manufacturing the concrete pipes was destroyed as well as parts of the actual water supply system, is untold. While many consider the bombing a war crime, as it directly impacts infrastructure on which civilians depend for their survival, NATO defended the destruction, saying, “The factory is being used to hide military material, including multiple rocket launchers. These weapons have been used every day from within this factory compound and then carefully hidden after the day within the factory buildings and the area.” To date, no evidence of this subterfuge has been presented.

Prior to the GMRP, Libya was in danger of losing all its water: coastal aquifers which had been supplying the country with potable water were becoming contaminated with encroaching sea water as levels rise due to global warming. The GMRP was thus seen not only as the incredible hydro-electric achievement it undoubtedly was, but in the long-term, a way for the Libyan people to survive. What had not been discussed is how long those fossilized aquifers would last.

In an interview with MIPJ correspondent, Sean Mullan, the Founding Director of the Center For Climate Security Francesco Femia said, “It’s a massive extraction project: they’re sucking out water so fast and that’s going to be a significant problem.  … the rate of extraction is so great that we’re going to see some serious water stress. …but for short term service provision of water, which led to some short term political benefit for the Gadhafi Regime while it did that, and while it was implementing the manmade river project, it seemed like a great, fantastic idea, but it’s not sustainable and so that has to be recognized and alleviated at some point.”

In 2012, the British Geological Survey and University College London released a report mapping the aquifers across the continent, and found large sedimentary resources under Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan. Accessibility, however, is limited as some of the water is at very deep levels and the cost of the deep drilling technology required to access many of these supplies can prove almost prohibitive for nations already struggling with their development. The sites of shallow water make hand pumps more feasible, as commercial extraction would likely do more damage to the aquifers.


Egypt is another dry country in transition: facing a growing population and looking for the development that brings longer lifespans, and also wanting to move away from independence on food imports. Once considered the Roman Empire’s bread basket, Egypt now imports around 50% of its food.

Encouraging farmers to literally “make the desert bloom”, however, requires ambitious irrigation. Like Gaddafi, former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak tried to install an agricultural project in southern Egypt, not far from the Sudanese border. It failed under the weight of poor planning and an inability to attract investors. The new President el-Sisi has shown some determination in renewing the project, to deep cynicism from his fellow Egyptians.

In his article, “Farming the Sahara”, published at, January 8, 2016 , Cairo-based reporter Peter Schwartzstein writes: “In the stretch of desert around the Farafra and Bahariya oases, 200-plus miles southwest of Cairo, the government aims to convert sand into soil. But the most obvious problem with the plan is that the scheme relies to a large degree on groundwater reserves that some experts doubt even exist. Egypt is among the most rain-deprived countries on Earth, and with no waterways, save the distant Nile, crisscrossing the arid hinterland, everything will have to be extracted from beneath the sands.”

The large underground aquifer is fossil water and therefore not renewable, and it wouldn’t take long to drain it if used for agricultural irrigation purposes. And then there’s the issue of who wants to move to the desert and struggle to be a farmer in almost impossible conditions?

Schwartzstein: “Suleiman Mohammed Nour, one of the relative few to have relocated to Toshka, where he oversees a team of laborers pruning and picking date palms on the Kadco farm, says a combination of financial and cultural concerns keep his former neighbors in the Nile Valley from following in his footsteps.

“For most of them, the day rate is insufficient,” he said, stooping to check for snakes and scorpions in the long grass. “And then we have our maxim: Go to the delta for a year, and don’t spend a day in the desert.” The government has hastily boosted necessary amenities in parts of the Western Desert, such as improving roads to reduce travel times and expanding subsidized housing in existing settlements, but many Egyptians might be just too wed to the river to stray far into the sands.”

Make that: infertile sands.

Heart of Africa; heart of dryness

In his excellent book, “The Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age Of Permanent Drought”, James Workman writes:

“To help me appreciate the deep extent to which water governed human lives in this dry and unforgiving landscape, anthropologist (Robert) Hitchcock had me consider the nuances embedded in language. It may or may not be true that Inuit people of the arctic have dozens of different names for ‘ice’ and ‘snow,’ but Kalahari researchers documented how various bands of Bushmen used the following words for water and the term to suck:

Water: /qhaa

Water: g!u, dohmsoan (ka)

Water Acacia: /oa’//g!u!’an (ka)

Water bag: /guug!u/haian (ha)

Water course: /nau, /num

Water storing tree: oggo

Water that has collected in the hollow of a tree: g!u!’an (ka)

To Water a garden (verb): tczq

To Make water proof: thobo

Water-hole: g!u-n!ang (ka)

Water-hole connected to a pan by a furrow: g//ae (ha)

Water in one’s eyes: tcaq

Water bottle: g!utan (ka)

Well: tsaho

Well (pit): !’han

Sip: kx’aha; dyshxo’la (avoiding dregs)

Sip (hot liquid): sam or tcam

Sip (cold liquid): qom

Suck: //’ube; qum; /oy/i (-and dissolve)

Suck /qhulu (slurp moisture through a small puncture)

Suck out: //oho

Suck out through a straw – blood: goo

Suck out water and transfer to a container: txhxole

Suck out water from an egg or water tree: Ooumi

These suggest the myriad ways and the careful extent to which Bushmen restrained themselves, restricted access, wasted nothing, sought out, hunted down and trapped water as soon as it formed…. Bushmen stored as much as possible, out of sight, sealing off dozens and even hundreds of reservoirs in secret, small and decentralized containers, hidden away from the two most relentless threats to water: the sun above, and the sand below.“

When you live in one of the driest places on earth, you quickly learn the true value of water.

This knowledge may assist in storing the liquid one finds, but the problem is exacerbated when El Nino hits, and in 2015, following the 2014 drought that saw millions across East African nations impacted by food insecurity, the potentially record-breaking system visited sub-Saharan Africa, catching leaders off guard, and bringing the much needed rainfall to arid regions. Ordinarily, on a continent generally short of water, rainfall should be welcomed, but with the earth so parched and unable to cope with the unexpected levels of saturation, the one guaranteed result is flooding – and with that comes crop devastation, and livestock deaths. Already, there has been an increase in food prices due to food shortages, and increasing migration of people away from farming areas towards the cities means greater socio-economic pressures on all, especially on governments generally unable to plan or spend massive amounts on infrastructure ala Gaddafi.

While Kenya, Tanzania, and other parts of East Africa mops up, South Africa gasps for breath.

Six of South Africa’s nine provinces have been hit hard, with three declared disaster areas. In southern Africa, El Nino events are usually associated with dry weather, and as ocean temperatures are warmer than usual creating extreme weather events, the lack of rainfall in a country that is able to produce its own food, is devastating. Dry weather makes the soil dry out, increasing the chances of heat waves, compounding the existing drought conditions. Ordinarily, El Nino would recede towards late summer, in February, but experts are predicting this one is going to stick around – making recovery that much more difficult.

Zimbabwe has already reported the deaths of over 1,000 head of cattle, a shortage of pastures, and inadequate water supplies.

Situated between Zimbabwe and Zambia is the aging Kariba Dam, the world’s largest man-made lake and water reservoir, which provides power to around half of each country, is currently at 12% capacity. If it doesn’t rain soon, the price of electricity increases, and an already strapped Zimbabwe will face new economic pressures. If it does rain soon, and flooding occurs, the Kariba Dam is in danger of collapsing, sending a tsunami through the Zambezi Valley, towards Mozambique, putting millions of lives at risk. If it overwhelms the Cahora-Bassa Dam in Mozambique, it will knock out almost half the power supply to southern Africa. The Zambezi Water Authority has raised a large portion of the money needed to repair the dam, with work commencing in early 2016. The locals hope it’s completed in time.

For a report on how a South African community is dealing with the drought and water shortage, read Keith Schneider’s report in Volume 1 of 'PERSPECTIVE: AFRICA'

Beyond the Thirst

According to a new WHO report, and based on the latest UN figures, the WHO estimates 60 million people in third world and developing countries will be impacted by El Niño this year with many suffering health consequences.

The flooding in eastern Africa raises the risk of cholera outbreaks, and more than 12,000 cases have already been reported in Tanzania, making it the largest since the previous El Niño system when over 40,000 cases were reported.

There is little need to consider the health impacts as all doom and gloom – preventative steps can be taken to mitigate the El Nino effects and WHO is geared up to work with governments and the regional health sectors to support emergency measures.

In 1758 Benjamin Franklin wrote, “When the well’s dry, they know the worth of water.”