The landing was relatively smooth, with a single bounce and then a long rollout as the plane slowed. Like most aircraft from the early days of aviation, the DC-3 was a tail dragger. It had two large wheels under the wings and a small guide wheel at the back, beneath the tail. Because of this, landing was accompanied by the odd sensation of touching down flat and then the nose tilted up as the plane slowed. It was backward, Paul thought, all of it, but he was happy to be on the ground again.
As soon as his boots hit the sand, he turned to help Gamay out, offering his hand. She grabbed it and hopped free. “That was amazing,” she said. “When we get back home, I’m learning to fly. Joe could teach me.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Paul said, trying hard to appear supportive.
“Did you see the Berber Oasis?” she asked.
“No,” Paul said, thinking back. “When did we pass it?”
“Right before we turned onto final approach,” Reza said.
“You mean that dried-up area?”
Reza nodded. “In a week, it went from a healthy tropical paradise to a salt bed. The same process we saw in Gafsa is now being witnessed all over the Sahara.”
“It doesn’t seem possible,” Paul said.
Reza was holding a hand against the sun. “Let’s get inside,” he said.
He led them to the main building, bypassing a large bank of pumps and a series of pipes that stretched out into the distance, heading back toward Benghazi. After the heat of the desert, being back in the air-conditioning was a welcome relief. They approached a group of workers.
“Any change?” Reza asked. “For the positive, I mean.”
The lead technician shook his head. “We’re down another twenty percent on output,” he said grimly. “We’ve had to shut three more pumps down. They were overheating and bringing up nothing but sludge.”[email protected]@@@[email protected]@@@@=======
As he listened to the conversation, Paul looked around. The room was covered with display screens and computer terminals. The few windows there were had a dark reflective tint to them. It reminded him of an air traffic control center.
“Welcome to the headwaters of the Great Man-Made River,” Reza told him. “The largest irrigation project in the world. From here, and several other sites, we draw water from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer and deliver it across five hundred miles of desert to the cities of Benghazi, Tripoli and Tobruk.”
Reza tapped a display screen and it began to cycle through photographs of giant pumps churning, wells being sunk and water flowing down huge dark pipes in a torrent.
“How much water do you bring up?” Gamay asked.
“Until recently, seven million cubic meters a day,” he said. “That’s almost two billion gallons, for you Americans.”
Paul was studying the boards; he saw indicators in yellow, orange and red. Nothing was lit up in green. “How badly has the drought affected you?”
“We’re down almost seventy percent already,” Reza said, “and it’s getting worse.”
“Have there been any earthquakes?” Paul asked. “Sometimes, seismic activity can shear off wells and destabilize aquifers. Making the water more difficult to retrieve.”
“No earthquakes,” Reza said. “Not even tremors. Geologically speaking, this area is incredibly stable. Even if it’s not so politically.”
l was truly baffled and he uttered the only thing that made any sense. “I’m sure no one wants to say it, but is it possible that the aquifer is running dry?”
“It’s a very good question,” Reza replied. “The groundwater here was left over from the last Ice Age. As we pull it out, it’s obviously not being replaced. But most estimates suggest it should last at least five centuries. The most conservative assessment suggests a supply of at least a hundred years. We’ve been drawing on it for only twenty-five. And yet, like you, I have no other answer. I don’t know where the water is going.”
“What do you know?” Gamay asked.
Reza moved to a map. “I know the drought is progressing, it’s getting rapidly worse. It also seems to be sweeping westward. The first wells to report issues were here on the eastern border.” He pointed to a spot south of Tobruk, where Libya and Egypt met. “That was nine weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, wells in Sarir and Tazerbo, in the center of the country, began to lose pressure. And thirty days ago, we noticed the first drop in volume at our western wells, south of Tripoli. The onset there was rapid and the volume of water pumped was halved within days. That’s why I went to Gafsa.”
“Because Gafsa is farther to the west,” Paul noted.
Reza nodded. “I needed to see if the effect was continuing and it is. My counterparts in Algeria are beginning to feel the effects as well. But none of these countries are as dependent on the groundwater as we are. In the twenty-five years we’ve been operating, Libya’s population has doubled. Our irrigated agriculture has increased five thousand percent. Our industrial use of water five hundred percent. Everyone has become dependent on the flow.”
Paul nodded. “And if they go to the tap and find nothing there when they turn it on, you’ll have problems.”