Tobruk Water Crisis Leading To Increasing Instability and Extremist Group Expansion

Via Future Directions International, a report on the Libyan city of Tobruk that is experiencing increasing societal, political and economic pressures due to severe water shortages:

The Libyan city of Tobruk is one of many across the Middle East and North Africa region that is experiencing increasing societal, political and economic pressures due to severe water shortages. The Tobruk city government declared a humanitarian crisis in late July after the city’s main water supply, an ageing desalination plant, was completely shut down. Desperate residents are placing increased pressure on political leaders to solve the issue or risk the closure of parliament and the Hariga oil port, through which 20 per centof the country’s oil is exported.


Libya has experienced an economic downturn due to recent and ongoing civil wars. Oil, its primary export, underwent a fall in production from 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) at its peak in 2007 to 35,000 bpd in 2014. Libyan oil production has since increased markedly to above one million bpd which, provided that transportation networks are not disrupted, could affect the global oil market by boosting supply in an already oversupplied market.


A total shut down of the Hariga oil port would affect Libya’s output in the short term. In the long term, however, this would likely be resolved as other oil ports have been closed and re-opened in recent years. While assessments generally focus on a united Libya, there is an east-west split between the Libyan National Army (LNA), based in Tobruk, and the Tripoli-based National Salvation Government. This further complicates the situation as the two sides operate separately in oil production and have battled over the Sidre and Ras Lanuf oil ports in the past. Hariga is connected by pipeline to oilfields in Libya’s east and any disruption in its operation would have dire economic consequences for the LNA.

Water is now being sold at much higher prices by street traders, increasing the cost of living and other social pressures for many residents of Tobruk. A social pressure, such as a water or food crisis, can contribute to the radicalisation of some individuals (there is evidence that this occurred in Syria and Iraq). This is because it assists in the creation of an environment where desperate residents are more open and willing to accept, or at least tolerate, the violent ideological narratives offered by terror groups and local militias.

Indeed, there are active non-state actor groups in Libya that could fill the void that residents are experiencing in this water crisis. Two such groups are the Islamic State (IS), a growing threat in other parts of the country, and the Benghazi Defence Brigade (Saraya Difaa al-Bengazhi), which briefly controlled the Sidra and Ras Lanuf oil ports.

The respective governments in Libya, the LNA in this case, are in a position to address these issues. Members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) can also assist, and some member states have already shown their support for the LNA. While their involvement appears to be an extension of the other proxy wars in the Middle East, it is largely in the interests of most regional states to help stop the expansion of extremist groups in Libya due to the broader negative impacts that it would have on the region. Hence, it would be reasonable for the LNA to reach out to the GCC for support with the water crisis, at least in the form of aid and, potentially, for longer term funding to keep the desalination plant in Tobruk running.

Libya requires regional and international assistance to maintain vital public infrastructure and social cohesion. This support will prove increasingly important to maintain social stability and, in turn, ward off the growing threat that violent extremist groups and their narratives present. Given the divergent interests of the various actors engaged in the region, however, that support is unlikely to be forthcoming.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 30th, 2017 at 9:15 pm and is filed under Libya.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2024 Water Politics LLC .  'Water Politics', 'Water. Politics. Life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.