May 13, 2004
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Libya) has a population of 5.5 million and a land area of 1.8 million square kilometers and is about the size of Alaska. The nation's population is highly concentrated (almost ninety-percent) along its Mediterranean coast. This densely inhabited strip includes all of its major cities, including the capital, Tripoli (population 1.1 million). Libya is an urban country, with ninety percent of its inhabitants residing in and around cities on the northern coast; just fourteen percent of its people live in rural areas.
The land is largely barren. Ninety-three percent of the country's land is classified as either arid or semi-arid. Four percent is classified as suitable for pasture, one to two percent is categorized as arable, and about one percent is forested. Deserts, principally the Sahara, comprise the vast majority of the country's extent. The desert is predominately comprised of sand, sand dunes, or rock, and all three are agriculturally useless. With the absence of permanent rivers (unlike its neighbor Egypt, blessed with the Nile), only small and scattered oases interrupt the vast human and agricultural void throughout the country's central and southern expanse. The largest and most important oasis is Kufra, in the southeast. It is situated above a large aquifer, allowing for limited agriculture production and several settlements.
The fate of Libya's agricultural economy has been inversely related to the discovery, extraction, and exportation of petroleum. After the discovery of oil in the late nineteen fifties, agricultural production declined sharply as migration into cities began in earnest. Peasant farmers left in droves for better pay and more opportunities in the new oil economy of the coastal cities. In 1958, just before the beginning of the oil wealth, agriculture contributed over 26 percent of the GDP. This amount tumbled to just two percent by 1978, and remains around five-percent today. Much of Libya's oil profits go toward increasing food imports for its growing population. Italy, is by far Libya's largest exporter (about 25 percent in 2000), with Germany a distant second at ten percent.
Grain Production: Wheat and Barley
Many climatic and land constraints limit Libya's grain production to just two cereal crops: wheat and barley. These crops are restricted to just a narrow, rain-brushed ribbon of land (and its adjacent highlands) along the coast, and a few irrigated areas on isolated oases. Cultivation of autumn-sown wheat and barley is made possible because there are two main water sources. First, there are large reserves of shallow groundwater in Tripolitania, along Libya's northwest coast. This source permits significant irrigation.. Second, the scant coastal precipitation that does occur, fortuitously falls during the winter grain growing season (November through April).
While wheat is the preferred food grain, barley is more adaptable in the marginal climate and soils, so it is a popular choice for the Libyan farmer located in the drier hinterland. Fall planting typically begins in October, after the first fall rains arrive, and can last into December. Harvest begins in April for barley and May for wheat, wrapping up in May and June, respectively. The critical flowering period for wheat occurs in late March and early April. During this time period, the crop is most sensitive to high temperatures and low precipitation.
Yield and Production
The country's yields are always paltry due to moisture scarcity and marginal soils. Wheat, averages just 0.8 tons per hectare and barley averages 0.5 tons per hectare. Both wheat and barley are harvested on about 170,000 hectares each. Wheat, however, is typically grown on better land and produces about 125,000 tons per year, while barley yields just 80,000 tons. Other grains produced include less than 10,000 tons of millet yearly, and 2,000 tons of irrigated corn.
Non-Grain Agricultural Production
Source: 1998 FAO Statistics for
Crop Areas and Crop Calendar
Libya is a net food importer, averaging 1.4 million tons of imported wheat a year. In total, about eighty percent of Libya's food is imported, with domestic grain production meeting only 15-20 percent of the country's needs. Virtually all crops are grown for domestic consumption. The most recent information that could be obtained, an old study from the late 1970's, lists average farm size at eleven hectares. These farms were said to be fragmented into many small, locally scattered plots. Forty-five percent of farms were reported to be under ten hectares. For the past decade, durum wheat production, constrained by the amount of irrigated land available for cereal production, has remained flat, at about 100,000 tons. Agriculture represents just five percent of the GNP but 15 to 20 percent of the population are engaged in the farming sector.
Only two areas in Libya have average annual rainfall levels exceeding the minimum threshold (250-300 mm) considered necessary to sustain rainfed agriculture. The climate in both of these growing regions is Mediterranean, with almost all precipitation falling during the winter and late fall months. Libya and North Africa's weather are generally influenced by just two sources: the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the expanse of desert to its south. When cooler air masses from the north meet up with hot desert air, lifting occurs, which can create rainfall. Besides chronically low precipitation totals, another major impediment for reliable crop production is the aridity of the country's climate. Desert winds or dry "Ghibli" can greatly reduce relative humidity and substantially reduce or destroy a crop. "Ghiblis can last five days, but seldom persist for more than one. If the transpiration requirement is extraordinarily high for just a few days and the soil moisture available to the plant roots falls considerably short of meeting this demand, plants will suffer serious damage. A two or three day hot, dry Ghibli coming after a 30-day rainless period will ruin a promising grain crop."
While soils are mostly fertile, production is still constrained by water scarcity. Fluctuations
in both the timing and location of rainfall prevent reliable yearly harvests. Farther
south, beyond the narrow band along the fertile coast, rainfall is less
than 100 millimeters (4 inches) per year, far below the limit for sustaining crop-growth, with rainfall
missing large areas of the desert for consecutive years.
Cyrenaica is a large geographic region in northeast Libya. Its inhabited, northern areas, just east of the Gulf of Sidra, include Banghazi and many neighboring coastal cities. Cyrenaica's most agriculturally conducive areas are concentrated on the Barce Plain on its immediate coast. Slightly beyond, Jabal al Akhdar, a coastal plateau rising 900 meters between Banghazi to the southwest and Darnah to the northeast is the other major producing area. Its subtle rise produces an orographic effect on weather systems, wringing out scant moisture from the region's dry air masses. Its rain-inducing tendency effectively allows low yielding rain-fed crops (wheat and barley) to be grown on the plateau. The highest land on the plain receives between 400 and 600 millimeters of annual rainfall, (the most in Libya) while the immediately adjacent, north-facing areas receive 200 to 400 millimeters. Although Libya's highest rainfall totals occur on the high ground of Al Jabal Al Akhdar in northern Cyrenaica, underground water aquifers are extremely deep, and therefore mostly cost-prohibitive for irrigation. Most of Cyrenaica's agriculture is dryland or rainfed crops.
Tripolitania is situated in the northwest corner of the country. It contains Libya's greatest population density, and is clustered with many large cities, including the capital. The area includes Jabal Nafusah and the Jifarah Plain, areas that receives between 200-400 millimeters of rain annually. While this is minimal for dry land agriculture, an aquifer underlies the Jifarah Plain, allowing fairly intensive well-driven irrigation to occur. The combined rainfall and irrigation supports low yielding wheat, barley and pasture land. An old report from 1966, but likely still accurate, lists two-thirds of the nation's cultivated acreage to be located in Tripolitania. The same report also states that Tripolitania has twice as much arable land as Cyrenaica.
Vegetation Image - SPOT Satellite
Vegetation Image - AVHRR Satellite
Water is, and always has been, the limiting resource in Libya. Average rainfall for the country is 26 millimeters (about 1 inch), and only seven percent of the country receives 100 millimeters (4 inches) or more annually. There have been many attempts, some monumental, to alleviate the problems of its severe scarcity. The largest attempt to date has been the Great Man-made River Project (GMR), which is being conducted in five phases, the first having begun in 1984. Its aim is to tap the vast water aquifers that accumulated under a different climate thousands of years ago below the southern Libyan desert. The water would then be pumped to the population and agricultural lands along the coast. The goal of the completed first phase was to irrigate 50,000 hectares of grain and 20,000 hectares of vegetables while providing water to the urban community. The irrigation component however, has virtually disappeared in an attempt to provide drinking water to Libya's urban centers. It appears unlikely that the GMR will provide significant future irrigation. After finishing just phase one, the project's expense has ballooned, with 20 billion dollars already spent. Additionally, while water sources for this project are very large, they are also finite. Their continued withdrawal will surely have negative impacts on the scattered oasis communities. Creating desalinization plants is a possible alternative, but prohibitive costs associated with the technology (particularly in producing needed energy and providing spare parts) have continued to hamper its implementation.
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