Libya’s population growth and situation of severe drought has put a great strain on its water supply, especially since it does not have a renewable water source, relying largely on groundwater to satisfy its water demand. In the 50s and 60s, vast quantities of fresh groundwater were discovered in aquifers in the deserts of Southern Libya during oil explorations. To make up for the gap in its traditional supplies, the Libyan government, headed by Gaddafi, undertook the largest civil engineering project in the world, popularly known as The Great Man Made River Project (GMMR), to green the northern deserts of Libya. Gaddafi claimed that he would make the desert “as green as the flag of the Libyan Jamahiriya.” . The aim of the project was to supply water for agriculture as well as for municipal and industrial purposes from “fossil” water collected over 35,000 years ago in the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. This was done through the construction of an underground network of pipes which would transport water from the Southern deserts to the northern cities of Libya. Initial feasibility studies were conducted in 1974, and construction works commenced in 1984. Evaluation and tenders for the detailed design was completed in 2005. 80% of the water provided by the project was to be used for agricultural purposes. For example, the town of Abu Shieba, located in the west of Libya, had 700HA of agricultural land before the project. After water from the project reached the town, agricultural lands increased to 1600 HA and the number of farmers increased from 117 to 305. Water intensive crops were also planted after the project, such as corn, peanuts, and vegetables such as cauliflower and cabbage, as well as fruits such as oranges and grapes, thus increasing the income of farmers. The purpose of the project was to make Libya independent from imports from foreign markets by producing enough water to meet its municipal, industrial, and agricultural needs. Gaddafi had planned that land will be given to small farmers to grow produce for the domestic market. Large farms would also be established to grow crops that Libya imported. The project could also allow Libya to start an agro-business similar to the San Joaquin Valley in California, a desert valley that became one of the largest producers in the world due to irrigation works. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi called it the '8th wonder of the world', and the water delivery system positively changed the lives of Libyans across the country. During the first phase of the project in 1991, Gaddafi is quoted as saying: “After this achievement, American threats against Libya will double. The United States will make excuses, but the real reason is to stop this achievement, to keep the people of Libya oppressed.” 
Environmental impacts should generally be assessed before a major project is started. Libyan law demands that this must be done. But it did not happen in the case of the GMMR, as Khalifa Elawej, an advisor to the General Board of Environment, points out. The political decision to start was taken in view of an “acute shortage of water”. At the time, the cost of fossil water was only a tenth of that of desalinated water. To date, no environmental impact assessment has been done.  According to Elawej, it is impossible to give an accurate account of the environmental effects because relevant data are unavailable. Lots of research would be needed. However, some impacts are obvious, he says. Positive impacts include: The GMMR has helped to expand the green areas in the north and west of the country, stemming further desertification. The green areas contribute to tempering the weather. Traditional water resources in the north have been spared as people can now rely on GMMR water instead. Agricultural production has increased. There are downsides too, according to Elawej. The desert environment of the areas where the fossil water is taken from may be changing. The pipeline network itself may affect the environment. Some of the water is stored in open pools, and evaporation leads to salinization. Salinity of the GMMR water is high according to international standards, though it is not as bad as in the north’s traditional wells, which are affected by an influx of seawater. Since most – and perhaps all – of the fossil water is not renewable, limited resources are being used. In a largely controversial move, in July 2011 NATO planes bombed a water supply pipeline at Brega, as well as a Concrete Cylinder Pipe factory, killing six security guards in the process and jeopardizing the water supply of 70% of the population. The factory was built especially for the project, and was key in sustaining the water supply, being equipped to repair leaks and breaks in the system. NATO justified the bombing by claiming that it has evidence the factory was being used as a “military storage facility” and that “rockets were launched from there.”  Meanwhile, the GMMR team and managers (loyal to Gaddafi) labeled the bombing of the factory and surrounding infrastructure a crime that threatens the water supply of millions of Libyan citizens. Libyan officials had warned two months before, in May 2011, that NATO airstrikes on the GMMR’s pipelines would cause a humanitarian and environmental disaster. When asked for evidence of military installations in the factory, NATO officials provided satellite images that confirm BM-21 rocket launchers near the facility, which were intact after the bombing. The damage to the facility water not serious enough to completely stop the flow of water in the ‘river’. A few months earlier, NATO also bombed water facilities in Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, killing nine state employees who were working during the attack.  UN officials reported that if the project is to fail, a massive humanitarian emergency will be caused in Libya.  Targeting of essential civilian infrastructure is a war crime under the Geneva convention and, according to Nafeez Ahmed, a deliberate “genocidal strategy” in Libya.  A month after the NATO bombing of the GMMR, around half of Libya’s population was without running water. In addition, the bombardment caused a huge number of foreign employees working on the project to flee the country. Later in the same year, UNICEF reported that power cuts and fuel shortages were threatening the functioning of the GMMR by impeding the operation of the water-pumping stations. Such power cuts mean that Libyan citizens, particularly those in Tripoli and Benghazi, have to go without water for 8 or more hours a day. At the time of the UNICEF report, which confirmed that pro-Gaddafi officials were not sabotaging water facilities (as claimed by pro-rebel forces), 4 million Libyans had been left without potable water.  It warned that if the situation worsens, it can turn into a serious health epidemic. Agricultural areas dependent on the GMR were also affected. The whole project could collapse if the chaos in Libya continues, causing a water crisis that could affect millions of people. Meanwhile, pro-rebel sources have claimed that pro-Gaddafi officials shut down the supply system as a strategy to win the war.
As reported by Kieran Cooke of Middle East Eye, on 28 December 2016, the political and economic chaos in Libya does not allow the collection of reliable and accurate data on the current situation of the GMMR. It is unclear what priority level will be set by the new government to the GMMR, but it is clear that the project can’t be abandoned completely, especially without an alternative water production strategy. Some have claimed that the war in Libya today is caused by disputes over water, and have dubbed the war in Libya “water wars”. As one commentator quoted in the Guardian has said: “whoever controls the NSAS [Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System] controls the economies, foreign policies and destinies of several countries in the region, not just north-eastern Africa.”  Another journalist is quoted as saying: “Libya’s enormous aquatic reserves will be a large prize for whoever gets the upper hand in this struggle.”