What Lies Beneath: Libya's Great Manmade River

© Inacio Rosa/epa/Corbis

Muammar Qaddafi is clearly hated by many of his own people, and rightly so: in addition to kidnapping, torturing, and murdering political dissidents, over 40 years of misrule he has squandered Libya’s oil wealth and made the country an international pariah with his support of terrorism. But like many dictators, Qaddafi’s megalomania makes him a complicated guy. Viewing his country as an extension of himself, he mingles personal lust for glory with a genuine desire to improve Libya. And this isn’t just empty posturing. Over four decades in power, the Libyan tyrant has built a mind-boggling infrastructure project which he hopes will be his legacy: a giant network of pipelines tapping an ancient freshwater sea beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert, with the potential to turn Libya into a veritable Garden of Eden.

Welcome to Libya’s Great Manmade River.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of Dune, the science fiction novel in which Frank Herbert envisioned a desert planet made new by a vast supply of fresh water secretly collected and stored underground. And no question, there’s something fantastic about the idea: with typical grandiosity, Qaddafi has described the GMR as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” But it’s real… and this time his bombast might be justified.

Qaddafi's Great Manmade River project operating center, Tripoli. © Veronika Lukasova/ZUMA Press/Corbis

The story begins towards the end of the Precambrian period, about 600 million years ago, when the Earth was covered by warm, shallow seas. What little dry land existed was gathered around the South Pole in a single super-continent, Rodinia. As the seas began to retreat, revealing a landmass which would eventually become the Sahara, they deposited huge amounts of sand, mud, and clay on top of the ancient Precambrian base; over hundreds of millions of years, these sediments were compressed into a geologic formation called the Nubian Sandstone (named after the region where it was identified).

Stretching across northeast Africa and varying in thickness from 500 meters to 3000 meters, the porous Nubian Sandstone acted like a sponge during a climactic phase that began about 50,000 years ago, when the Sahara was a lush grassland, watered by torrential rains from ancient storm systems. Much of this water filtered down into the Nubian Sandstone, where it formed a gigantic aquifer measuring an incredible two million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) in area, with a thickness varying from 140 meters to 230 meters. Hidden beneath the deserts of Egypt, Libya, Chad, and Sudan, this subterranean freshwater sea -- the largest such formation in the world -- contains somewhere between 150,000 and 375,000 cubic kilometers, or 36,000 to 90,000 cubic miles, of “fossil” water suitable for human use (although not all of it can necessarily be recovered).

For comparison’s sake, that is somewhere between six and 16 times the total volume of freshwater held by all of North America’s Great Lakes, at 22,560 cubic kilometers (pictured), or Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the largest surface body of freshwater on the planet at 23,615 cubic kilometers. Indeed, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer holds more freshwater than all the freshwater surface lakes and rivers on Earth combined, at 125,000 cubic kilometers; only the polar ice caps and glaciers hold more. Libya’s share of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer comes to about 35,000 cubic kilometers.

This staggering natural treasure was first discovered in 1953 by geologists searching for—what else—oil. As further surveys revealed the true extent of the find, engineers naturally begin considering how the fossil water might be exploited for the benefit of North Africans eking out an existence on the edges of the world’s largest desert. Egyptian hydrologists and civil engineers first began tapping water from their share of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer to irrigate farms around the Kharga and Dakhla oases in the “New Valley” project in the mid-1950s—but this was too small and remote to benefit Egypt’s urban population, and in any event the development plans favored by Egyptian strongman Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser tended to reflect the obsessions of his Soviet advisors, including their Communist love of really, really big dams (most notably the Aswan High Dam, built from 1960-1970).

In neighboring Libya design work for the GMR began in the late 1960s, and gathered speed after the ambitious young Col. Muammar Qaddafi staged a military coup against King Idris in September 1969. Sharing Nasser’s taste for big projects, Qaddafi also enjoyed huge profits from Libya’s growing oil exports, which jumped from 1.2 million barrels per day in 1965 to 3.3 million barrels per day in 1970—raking in even more after he nationalized the oil industry in 1973. Meanwhile Libya’s population was exploding, from 1.35 million in 1960 to over three million in 1980 and 6.5 million today. Facing trade embargoes provoked by his reckless foreign policy, Qaddafi decided to secure his rule by making Libya self-sufficient in food and water, with the GMR occupying a central role in his long-term plan.

The Fifty-Year Plan

In the final design approved by Qaddafi’s rubber-stamp parliament in 1983, the GMR will consist of 2,485 miles of concrete pipeline, forming a network of aqueducts that convey water from 1,300 wells almost 400 miles north to Libya’s cities on the Mediterranean coast. Construction was planned to take place in five phases over 50 years, at a total projected cost of $25 billion -- all of it to be paid for by the Libyan government without outside assistance.

Work on the GMR began in 1984, and three phases have presently been completed to date, with about 1,500 miles of pipeline delivering water to three huge reservoirs in 1989-1991, followed by Tripoli in 1996, and the northeastern town of Gharyan in 2007. The project currently delivers about 6.5 million cubic meters of water per day for agriculture and human consumption. That works out to 2.37 cubic kilometers annually, or 100,000 gallons per person per year; if this rate of consumption doesn’t increase, the Libyan aquifers could theoretically supply “fossil” water for up to 1,000 years.

While the current uprising may throw the project’s future into jeopardy, construction on the last two phases of the GMR is scheduled to continue over the next two decades. In addition to connecting separate systems and expanding distribution to Libya’s remaining cities, the completed project should provide water to irrigate about 382,850 acres or about 600 square miles of farmland, perhaps fulfilling Qaddafi’s grandiose promise to turn the desert green.

Erik Sass is the author of The Mental Floss History of the United States and co-author with Steve Wiegand of The Mental Floss History of the World, both of which you should go buy right now. When he’s not writing about historical curiosities for mental_floss, he covers online and traditional media for MediaPost. His interests include water gardens, games of strategy, geography, and cats.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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