Eighth Wonder of the World
I recently watched a television documentary titled ``Sahara,” which eloquently described the natural phenomena of searching for, fighting for, waiting for, and eventually being jubilant after finding water.
The recent demise of Col. Muammar el-Gadhafi means the closure to the eight-month-long Libyan civil war. Two month ago, on Aug. 23, triumphant Libyan rebel fighters stormed Gadhafi’s fortress in Tripoli, but the strongman was nowhere to be found.
A few days later, it was reported hidden tunnels and bunkers were found under Gadhafi’s compound. Some journalists hinted the tunnels might have been part of Libya’s ambitious and massive water pipeline project, Great Man-Made River(GMR), once described by Gadhafi as the ``Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Earlier, in December 1997, the New York Times reported about the pipeline project with the headline reading ``Mysterious Libyan Pipeline Could Be Conduit for Troops.” The enormity of the pipeline leads some to suspect that Gadhafi used part of the construction as a disguise to cover troop movements and military supplies. His previous disappearance gave new life to these speculations.
Almost three decades ago, when Korea was a lesser known entity in the global arena, it embarked on a project that was to be coined by some to be the ``Eighth Wonder of the World.” The GMR Project is the largest irrigation project known to modern man. This massive undertaking consists of thousands of kilometers of enormous underground pipelines designed to deliver millions of liters of much needed fresh water to millions of people and farmland in Libya.
To give an idea of the scale of this endeavour, the Phase I pipeline of the GMR draws from aquifers in southern Libya, where some of these aquifers are up to 38,000 years old. This ``fossil water” is then pumped to a reservoir in Ajdabiya to be distributed Libya’s northern coastal areas.
In November of 1983, Korea’s Dong Ah Construction Industrial and Korea Express were awarded the $3.8-billion contract for Phase I of the project. Dong Ah Consortium started the 1,874 kilometer pipeline in 1984 and completed Phase I in 1991. Dong Ah Consortium once again won the bid to work on this ambitious undertaking for Phase II in 1990 and the 1,730 kilometer pipeline was completed in 1996, and water became available in Tripoli.
I was the director of the Overseas Market Development Department of Dong Ah Construction and a part of the team that won the bid for the GMR Project in 1983. And in 1994 as a senior member of Dong Ah Business Group Board of Directors I visited the GMR project site in Benghazi and Sarir in Libya to witness the monumental project with my own eyes.
The project was not without its controversy, though. It has been in and out of the news for almost three decades. In the 80s when the project began, the sheer audacity of the scale made headlines. On Sept. 9, 1989 the New York Times published ``Bit by Bit, Life Gets Better for Libyans “... the Great Man-Made River project.
Deep in Libya's deserts, oil explorers have found vast reserves of underground water. So pipelines are to be built, bringing water 965 kilometers across the desert to the coast, where water supplies are threatened with salinity. So far, the project has cost between $3 billion and $5 billion. But the overall cost, when completed with webs of irrigation for 37,000 wheat farms and sheep and cattle pasture, is estimated by some Westerners at $40 billion.”
Korea rose from the ashes of destruction, not in any small part due to aid from more developed nations. Korea has been fortunate enough to be able to reciprocate and assist lesser developed countries and has been a part of these efforts for many years. This aggressive undertaking has not only helped millions of people in northern Africa, but it also helped put Korea's construction prowess on the map. Korea has become a country that was once in great need to one that provides great services to those in need.
Despite the recent damage to the pipeline in a NATO attack, water transfer to Tripoli and Benghazi has resumed and once again millions of people are enjoying clean drinking water. Korea is part of the most ambitious irrigation project of modern man and thanks to Korea's participation, clean water flows freely in Libya.
Perhaps we will never know whether or not the true purpose of the Great Man Made River Project was to hide a dictator's military arsenal.
But one thing is certain, through the efforts of leading industrial nations and with the hope of helping millions, the project is still, despite all the controversy and recent damage, delivering fresh drinking water to millions of people in Libya.
The writer is a chair professor of the Catholic University of Daegu and a show host on Arirang TV. He previously headed the Foreign News Division of the Korea Overseas Information Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.