Over 90 percent of Libya is desert. Some of that desert is sparsely vegetated; yet there is enough so animals can graze on it. But for the most part Libya is covered by the Sahara Desert. Only a small part of the country’s land is fertile soil and that is most along the Mediterranean coast and in oases. But then there is the other question, where to find water? Most of the water sources are underground. Given this set of circumstances Libya’s army has to control the limited agricultural resources that are controlled by various tribes.
A Special Case
Oil money has changed everything in Libya ever since it was discovered in 1959. The connection between oil and agriculture in Libya is about water. It takes electricity to pump underground water into irrigation systems. And, all of Libya’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. Libya’s population of 6.2 million people mostly (78%) live in cities and most of the cities are in the north along the Mediterranean coast or along one of the seven Libyan rivers. Rainfall also happens mostly along the Mediterranean coast, primarily in two places: 1) in the northwest corner of Libya near Tripoli, and 2) in the northeastern horn of Libya along the Gulf of Sirte, near Benghazi. Any farm land other than in these locations requires irrigation or is located in an oasis.
Less than two percent of Libya’s land is suitable for agriculture and a growing percent of that arable land is irrigated. But even with the small amount of irrigation the water table fell low enough to cause ecological concern in the 1970s. Jifarah Plain west of Tripoli is where most of this irrigation occurs and the government took steps to discourage citrus and tomato cultivation in this region because they are crops that require large amounts of water. At least 80 percent of Libya’s agricultural production depends on irrigation so depleting the water table is a big problem.
There is a large water project in Libya called the Great Manmade River Project. Libya developed the Great Manmade River Project as a result of oil exploration in the southern part of the country. In 1953 oil exploration crews found vast quantities of underground freshwater. That water is now part of a huge pipe distribution project that pumps the water north to cities and agricultural areas along Libya’s Mediterranean coastal areas. The water supply is not endless, so this project only provides temporary support for Libyan agriculture; there is 50 to 100 years of water supply. The Great Manmade River Project makes Libya’s agriculture a special case, of sorts. It makes a farming community that is dependent on water supplied by a huge water pumping project that has a very limited lifespan.
In the early 1970s, only a few years after Muammar Gaddafi took control of the government he confiscated farms from Italians still remaining in Libya. The Italians had colonized Libya in 1911 and Gaddafi wanted the land back for redistribution among Libyans. Libya’s farming community is generally poor. Agriculture only represents 2 percent of Libya’s Gross Domestic Product, while engaging 17 percent of the labor force. But Libyan farmers only produce a little over 20 percent of Libya’s food. Like most desert countries Libya has to trade for the largest part of their food supply. With the development of oil production in Libya after 1953 that trade has been easier because Libya now regularly has a positive balance of trade.
Traditionally, farm land is protected from invaders by military efforts. Prior to 1951 when the United Nations made Libya an independent nation free of outside imperial control, Libya was an Italian colony. Prior to 1911, when the Italians moved to colonize Libya, the country had a long history of being dominated by empires of the Mediterranean region. After 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by rebels, a National Transition Council (NTC) was setup and that Council founded the Libyan National Army out of a combination of the rebel forces that deposed Gaddafi and former Gaddafi military officers. The new army has received training from France and Italy. The military, however, is not a stable institution due to he continued presence of pockets of rebel forces that seek their own interests.
In May 2014 military forces who were loyal to a retired Libyan general took control of the Libyan parliament. The United States did not characterize this take over as a coup, and there have been suggestions among US political analysts that General, Khalifa Hifter is a US CIA operative. Previously he was a General under Gaddafi, but broke away from Gaddafi during the Libyan war with Chad during the 1980s. It doesn’t seem that Hifter has a large enough following to take control of the Libyan government, so his efforts are probably more in keeping rival rebel forces in check. Situated near Benghazi, Hifter is on his home territory where he exerts his storngest influence.
As for Libya’s agricultural cycle, the current state of imbalance and uncertainty in the military is not good for sustaining and improving the sophisticated water pumping system that feeds Libya’s irrigation. The possibility of government changes could also undermine current agricultural policies, which ultimately could change the way Libya feeds itself.