© 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.