When addressing Libya’s natural resources, the first thing that comes to mind is fossil fuels. According to a February 2020 World Bank Group review on Libya’s financial sector, Libya is Africa’s largest oil economy in terms of proven oil reserves. Before the revolution, the oil sector contributed to over 90% of government revenues.
The country is also rich in other important resources, especially blue gold, and it relies primarily on conventional water resources, including both surface and ground water, representing about 97.3% of national water resources.
The former regime justified the overuse and exploitation of Libya’s vast natural resources (both oil and water) through the “discourse of plenty” – a rhetorical description of “the country as full of resource, whose wealth put it in a position of power in the MENA region and made other states dependent on it”.
In the early 1980s, for instance, this narrative allowed the former regime to implement the Great Manmade River Project. As the former regime’s biggest water engineering infrastructure, it extracts water from deep groundwater aquifers in the south to make up for population demand along the northern coast (though it does not meet overall national demand).
Today, however, climate change makes it harder to sustain such a rhetoric. Since Ghaddafi’s fall, the reality has dramatically changed, not only for citizens but also in terms of available natural resources. Libya has been facing extreme weather conditions and limited rainfall in the past few years, making people’s lives extremely difficult during the long summer periods.
On top of this, the emergence of a new government headed by the Government of National Accord (GNA)’s former Minister of Interior, Fathi Bashagha, has further exacerbated the political instability in the country and spread uncertainty, confusion, and tensions.
Every cloud has a silver lining: opportunities for the Energy Sector
Unfortunately, the current situation has been made even more complex due to ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. From climate change to political and economic instabilities, the war has taken its toll on many parts of the world, including the MENA region, affecting both oil and food security.
This uncertainty has led to a drastic rise in oil prices. At the beginning of March, oil and gas prices reached over 110$. With Europe seeking alternatives to Russian oil and gas, it created opportunities for other producers in the MENA region, including Algeria and Gulf States such as Qatar. In Libya, however, the lack of political will, general insecurity, and the spread of corruption have hampered any chance to become a key alternative for Europe. The local oil sector has in fact always been politicised and used to amplify tensions and put pressure on other actors.
Nonetheless, the Russia-Ukraine war could help Libya to increase its revenues and usher in a mixed transition to renewable energies. First and foremost, it is essential to isolate the energy sector from any political disputes in the country. For instance, by focusing on technical improvements Libya could still grab the chance of attracting huge European investments for the maintenance of its wells and maximise its production rates.
The invisible hand failed in granting Food Security
The food security of many countries, including Libya, has long depended on imports from either Russia and Ukraine and has since deteriorated due to the conflict. In particular, the country used to rely on wheat imports from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Russia, and Romania. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC)’s statistics, Libya imported $246M of wheat in 2020, becoming the world’s 48th largest importer and turning the cereal into its 5th most imported product. Local cereal crop production was registered at only 209,000 tonnes in 2021, clearly insufficient to cover consumption requirements.
Due to extreme weather conditions and droughts, many farmers have also grown reluctant to grow wheat and barley. Insufficient government support, the ongoing war, power outages, high prices of inputs, and the failure to sell their crops to either the public or private sector have further discouraged farmers to continue their cultivations.
A few actors in the region, such as Egypt, sought to increase imports from other countries while working on increasing their own production. In the case of Libya, buying from exporters other than Russia and Ukraine could be too expensive. Importing from the US or Canada, for instance, could come at a higher price due to shipping costs and associated logistics.
Moreover, local businessmen have capitalized on the crisis by selling food items at increased prices: to exemplify, the price of baking flour has risen by 10-15%. In turn, basic foods have also reached exorbitant prices while their quality is lowering in order to meet market demands.
However, the problem is not just with imports, but also with the lack of any active regulation and monitoring programs: as such, businessmen are left managing the market for themselves, taking advantage of the ongoing events to increase their profit.
On top of this, local farmers enjoy no support in facing these challenges, especially in the south. At this stage, developing a national strategy to support farmers, farming associations, and municipalities is of the utmost importance in order to slowly yet gradually raise local production of essential produce. Most importantly, regulating current prices has become paramount.
It is essential to remember that the ongoing food security discourse has been weaponized through a focus on Russia. This is especially true with the ‘actor analysis’ approach, which finds how actors — including the media — shape the narrative around food security without providing a clear direction or strategy for the re-organization of the world food trading system.
For Libya, the most probable scenario is that inflation will continue to rise. This will widen pre-existing social inequalities, raise the poverty rate, and leave families struggling for basic needs.
On top of this, the increasing impact of climate change is already taking its toll on local farming, shaping this sector's future. If the current pace persists, the country's agricultural output will only worsen, forcing citizens to live on survival mode.
Authorities should restructure the agricultural system locally, breaking it down into smaller regional sections. They should also focus on reviving local production before relying on foreign actors for short-term, unsustainable solutions.
Libya must also consider and reduce its dependence on food imports, working on activating policies that support local farmers by engaging qualified Libyan experts in the field. Still, the lack of support and authorities’ neglect is widening the gap among such experts, prompting them to either abandon this area of expertise or work in other fields that can better benefit and support them and their families.
B. Brika. Desalination and Water Treatment 167 (2019) 351–358.The water crisis in Libya: causes, consequences and potential solutions (googleusercontent.com)