Water in numbers

862 million cm/y: Total surface water resources in Lebanon

200 millimetres: Maximum annual rainfall in Jordan

$33.7bn: Estimated total cost of Libya’s Great Man-Made River in 50 years’ time

cm/y=Cubic metres a year. Source: MEED

Ever since the Romans built nature-defying aqueducts in Europe, Africa and the Near East, water conveyors have been held with a special sense of awe and considered among the world’s most outstanding of engineering feats.

In the arid climate of the Middle East, they take on even greater significance. At present, there are four major water conveyance projects under way in Lebanon, Jordan and Libya. The schemes reveal the difficulties not only in getting such projects started, but also in making them financially viable.

We’ve had three or four wars in [Lebanon]. Providing irrigation and domestic water supply … is very complex

Senior official at the Litani River Authority

In Libya, the Great Man-Made River (GMMR) has been a proud feature of Tripoli’s water sector for decades. First conceived in the 1960s and described as the eighth wonder of the world by Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi, the GMMR is the world’s largest water transfer project.

Boosting agriculture in the Middle East

The GMMR pumps groundwater through pipelines 4 metres in diameter from the southeastern and southwestern Saharan regions, across 4,000 kilometres to the coastal cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte. The scheme was conceived to increase the amount of land available for agriculture.

With a total investment to date estimated at $19.58bn, the GMMR draws 6.43 million cubic metres a day (cm/d) of water from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. Construction is being executed in five phases. Over the next 50 years, the cost of building and maintaining the river is expected to rise to $33.7bn.

The [Jordanian] government would like the price for a cubic metre of water to come to between $1-1.04

Source working on the Jordan Red Sea-Dead Sea project

The GMMR has been at the centre of the country’s national water plans for decades, but there are signs that the strategy of relying on a non-renewable fossil aquifer is now changing. Several desalination plants are also currently under construction in Libya.

In June 2009, state-owned General Desalination Company signed an agreement with Singapore-based Hyflux to build two desalination plants at a cost of $632m in Tripoli and Benghazi to produce a combined total of 900,000 cm/d of potable water. New desalination plants are also planned for Misurata, Khoms, Sirte, Zawia and Zliten, while existing capacity at Tobruk and Zwara will be expanded. The schemes aim to boost total desalination capacity from 190,000 cm/d to 1.8 million cm/d by 2015.

“The main concern is over the depletion of aquifers, which are not recharged,” says Rolf Herrmann, principal hydrogeologist and technical manager Middle East for the US’ Schlumberger Water Services.

“Since many aquifers that are pumped for the GMMR project are shared aquifers between neighbouring countries, such as Egypt and Chad, the detailed assessment and evaluation of the long-term abstraction potential needs to be fully understood. The Libyans have pumped huge quantities of water to the cities, but they know that 40, 60 or 80 years from now, they will run into a problem.”

In the past, the high cost of desalination technology made the GMMR financially viable, but over time those costs have reduced. In the future, it is likely the government will rely on a combination of the two – using desalinated water from plants on the coast for potable water, while continuing to rely on water from the GMMR for the agricultural areas it has created in the desert. It could also use output from desalination plants to recharge the aquifer.

Lebanese water supply troubles

Elsewhere, in Lebanon, the fortunes of the Conveyor 800 project to supply water to agricultural areas, towns and villages in the south of the country mirror the country’s tragic history.

Plans were first conceived for a major domestic and agricultural water project back in the 1970s. The Litani River Authority (LRA) completed a study in 1974 looking at a possible conveyor to run from the manmade Lake Qaraoun to villages in the south. One year later, the country was plunged into a bloody civil war.

Even after the signing of the Taif accord in 1989, which ended the 15-year conflict, it was not until Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 that the project could be looked at again. In July 2006, war intervened again with the start of the three-month conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

“For 40 years, this project has been in the pipeline,” says a senior official at the LRA. “And it has always faced plenty of challenges. We’ve had three or four consecutive wars in that area. Providing irrigation and domestic water supply in that region is very complex, particularly near the border areas between Lebanon and Israel. It is still very sensitive.”

Despite ongoing security concerns, the Conveyor 800 project may finally be moving forward, according to the official. “We are almost at the final stage of the contract award,” he says. “All technical difficulties have been overcome and we have a sound design.”

Past bidders on the project have included consortiums of Kuwaiti, Turkish and French firms. The Council for Development & Reconstruction (CDR), the body set up to manage all reconstruction projects across the country after the civil war, is overseeing the project. According to the official, the CDR is due to make an announcement on the contract award by the end of November.

The Conveyor 800 project comprises the construction of a 52km pipeline, with up to 56km of secondary pipelines, running downstream from the Qaraoun Dam, east of the Litani River to the southern international boundaries. It will supply 12 agricultural areas, covering 15,000 hectares with 90 million cm/d of water for irrigation and 77 villages with 20 million cm/d of potable water. The project is scheduled to be completed by September 2014 and the total cost is estimated to be $260m.

It will be funded by loans from the Arab Fund for Economic & Social Development and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.

Arid Jordan

Unlike mountainous Lebanon, where total surface water resources amount to 862 million cubic metres a year (cm/y), thanks to 27 dams and about 60 lakes, Jordan, in comparison, is an arid desert. More than 90 per cent of the country receives less than 200 millimetres of rainfall a year and the annual supply of surface water is just 215 million cm/y.

Jordan water resources and demand*, 2007
Demand  1,505
Resources  876
Deficit 638
*=In million cubic metres. Source: Ministry of Water Irrigation

But demand for water is soaring as the population of Amman swells. A project to transport freshwater reserves from the Disi-Mudawarra area in the south of the country on the border with Saudi Arabia, to the capital is finally under way, with the first three wells completed in early August. For more than a decade, the project had suffered from repeated delays.

For several years, The Water & Irrigation Ministry switched the Disi conveyor contract back and forth from an engineering, procurement and construction model to a build, operate, transfer (BOT) format, before finally on a 25-year BOT contract. A lack of finance also contributed to the delay. The total cost of the Disi conveyor is estimated at $1.1bn, with the Jordanian government contributing up to $400m and the project company Gama Holding $190m. Debt to fund the project has come from a variety of sources, including US-based Overseas Private Investment Corporation and other lenders, such as French development agency Proparco and the European Investment Bank.

Jordan water resources and demand*, 2022
  Without Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance With Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance 
Demand 1,635 1,635
Resources 1,132 1,632
Deficit 503 3
*=(million cubic metres). Source: Ministry of Water and Irrigation

Turkey’s Gama was awarded the project in September 2007. It will build a 325km water conveyor to supply the capital with an average of 100 million cm/y.

The ministry hopes to regulate water demand by providing a projected minimum of 80 million cm/y over the winter months and a maximum of 120 million cm/y over the summer period.

Water consumption in Jordan is calculated at 900 million cm/y and demand is forecast to climb to 1.6 billion cm/y by 2015. Disi is expected to account for 6 per cent of the country’s total consumption by 2015.

Despite the scale of the project, it is just a partial and temporary solution to Jordan’s  water problems. As a non-renewable fossil aquifer, Disi will only be able to provide water at this volume for 50 years. Furthermore, when it opens in 2013, the pipeline will not completely alleviate the water shortage in the north of the country.

As a result, a inter-basin transfer project scheme is now moving forward: the Jordan Red Sea-Dead Sea project. The scheme involves the construction of a 120 million-cm/y desalination plant in Aqaba by 2014, which would be expandable to 380 million cm/y, and another near the Dead Sea with a capacity of 200 million cm/y, expandable to 580 million cm/y, which would desalinate water as it is pumped from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea.

Desalination plants

“Up to 29 prospective bidders are interested in the project,” says to project manager for one of the consultants to the government on the scheme.

“A request for qualifications will be submitted by the end of October, with a request for proposals due by the end of the year.”

Consortiums of Kuwaiti, Italian, Egyptian, French, UK, US, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean firms are all competing to be the developer and partner in the Jordan Red Sea Project Company (JRSP). The JRSP will plan, build, finance and operate phases one and two of the project.

The successful developer will not only build the water conveyance and water treatment infrastructure, but will also have control over the economic use of the land designated for the project. Residential, commercial, industrial and tourist schemes are under consideration.

“Financing this project has been a major issue for the government,” says the project manager. “Technically it is already very difficult and the procurement of a master developer has been specifically designed to combine the water project with land development as a way of making it financially viable. The government would like the price for a cubic metre of water to come to between $1-1.04. They will develop it on a public-private partnership model.”

Libya, Lebanon and Jordan have embarked on water conveyance schemes for different reasons. For the former two, it is to take readily available water to agricultural areas in a bid to make the countries’ lands more productive. Jordan, however, suffers an acute water shortage; its citizens live on the hygiene threshold when it comes to water supply.

But each state has found water conveyance schemes to be huge, costly undertakings. With their coastal locations, Libya and Lebanon have alternative options, but Jordan needs to make its schemes work or it will have a major crisis on its hands.