Libya remains one of the least accessible countries in the world and least explored, writes Dr Nicolaas C Steenkamp.

The mention of Libya conjures up images of conflict whenever discussed. Officially known as the State of Libya, the country is situated in the Maghreb region in North Africa and is the fourth largest country in Africa. Libya is made of three historical regions: Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. It has an extremely rich history, with archaeological sites from the Bronze Age and having been part of every major civilisation that ever existed along the Mediterranean over millennia.


Political impasse, economic results

A bloodless military coup in 1969, initiated by a coalition led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, placed the country on a path of international isolation until the Arab Spring of 2011. During the rule of Gaddafi, the country suffered heavily under international sanctions, but at the same time the citizens of Libya enjoyed a high standard of living due to oil exports and extensive government subsidised development.

Following the removal of Gaddafi, the country spiralled into chaos after 2014, when two rival authorities claimed to govern Libya, which led to a second civil war, with parts of Libya split between the Tobruk and Tripoli-based governments as well as various tribal and Islamist militias. Although there an official cease fire was signed in 2020, the conflict is still far from resolved.

Per a UN Security Council monthly report dated February 2024, “The political impasse in Libya continues between the UN-recognised Government of National Unity (GNU), based in Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, and the eastern-based Government of National Stability (GNS), led by Prime Minister Osama Hamad and aligned with the House of Representatives (HoR) and the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of General Khalifa Haftar. The prolonged stalemate between the rival governments – which has persisted since the indefinite postponement of elections that had been scheduled for December 2021 – is a key driver of Libya’s political, security and economic instability.” This situation has led to almost zero industrial development taking place and it is nearly impossible for foreigners to visit the country.1


An extreme environment

The Libyan Desert covers most of the country in Aeolian sand with rock outcrops and the climate is extreme, with temperatures ranging from very hot during the day to freezing cold at night. The Kufra group, consisting of Tazerbo, Rebianae and Kufra, are a series of small oases, usually linked to the major depressions. Apart from the scarps, the general flatness of the desert is only interrupted by a series of plateaus and massifs near the centre of the Libyan Desert, around the convergence of the Egyptian-Sudanese-Libyan borders. Further to the south are the massifs of Arkenu, Uweinat and Kissu, which are granitic ring complexes. Eastern Uweinat – the highest point in the Libyan Desert – is a raised sandstone plateau, dotted with eroded volcanic features to the north.

Due to the location of the country in the North of Africa, Libya belongs entirely to the Saharan domain forming the northern part of the African Shield. With/bara few outcrops from Precambrian deposits, the country is mostly covered by Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic sediments and Neogene volcanics.


The sweet spot?

The petroleum sector was the most important component of Libya’s mineral industry, until the collapse of the country. Libya holds the largest proven oil reserves in Africa and is an important contributor to the global supply of light, sweet crude. Oil production stood at more than 1.6 million barrels per day before the Arab Spring uprising. Current production is estimated at 900 000 barrels per day. Oil fields include the Bouri Field, the Mediterranean’s largest producing oilfield, El Sharara, Elephant, Raguba, Sarir, Waha and Zelten. Sulfur extraction was approximately 13 000 tons/year and was produced as a by-product of refining petroleum and natural gas.

Due to the heavy reliance on the petroleum sector over the past decades, no real significant geological exploration of other mineral deposits has been undertaken. The main known deposits relate to gypsum deposits that historically produced 150 000 tons per year for the manufacture of cement. Iron ore from Wadi ash-Shati’, with a reserve of 795 million tons with an average grade of 52% Fe was identified but has not been developed due the isolated location in the desert, around 900km inland.

There are large salt flats in the north of the country with peak production in the 1980s amounting to approximately 11 000 tons of salt per annum. Substantial reserves of magnesium and potassium salts have been recorded, but no exploration or development undertaken. The country has a very small industrial mineral industry, limited to clay, cement and limestone.

There are reports of potentially diamondiferous kimberlites in the East Saharan craton. Metamorphic belts with potential for gold are indicated in the southern regions of the country.

The development of infrastructure is limited to the coastal region along the Mediterranean Sea and the oil fields. Historically the civil service was the main employer in the country and was able to appoint as much as 70% of the population at its peak. Libya is also restricted in terms of agricultural potential and remains highly dependent on food imports, due to its extreme climate.

The provision of potable water also remains a massive challenge in the modern-day Libya. Under the Gaddafi government, the Great Man-Made River was the world’s largest irrigation project. The project utilises a pipeline system that pumps fossil water from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System from south Libya to cities in the populous northern Mediterranean coast including Tripoli and Benghazi. The water provides 70% of all fresh water used in Libya, but maintenance of the pipeline has been lacking in the last number of years.

The development of Libya will remain in a state of limbo until the political conflict has been resolved. The global move away from fossil fuels will mean that a future Libya will not be able to rely on the petroleum sector to rebuild the country. A substantial undertaking will be required in the future to locate and develop opportunities and other natural resources. The lack of exploration is both a current impediment to progress and a future sweet spot, should stability ensue. Until then, the sands of the Sahara will continue to move and cover attempts of humans to conquer it. n