With an area of 1,760,000 square kilometers and a Mediterranean coastline of nearly 1,800 kilometers, Libya is fourth in size among the countries of Africa and seventeenth among the countries of the world. Its coastline lies between Egypt and Tunisia. Although the oil discoveries of the 1960s have brought it immense petroleum wealth, at the time of its independence it was an extremely poor desert state whose only important physical asset appeared to be its strategic location at the midpoint of Africa's northern rim. It lay within easy reach of the major European nations and linked the Arab countries of North Africa with those of the Middle East, facts that throughout history had made its urban centers bustling crossroads rather than isolated backwaters without external social influences. Consequently, an immense social gap developed between the cities, cosmopolitan and peopled largely by foreigners, and the desert hinterland, where tribal chieftains ruled in isolation and where social change was minimal.
Between the productive lowland agricultural zones lies the Gulf of Sidra, where along the coast a stretch of 500 kilometers of wasteland desert extends northward to the sea. This barren zone, known as the Sirtica, has great historical significance. To its west, the area known as Tripolitania has characteristics and a history similar to those of nearby Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. It is considered with these states to constitute a supranational region called the Maghrib. To the east, the area known historically as Cyrenaica has been closely associated with the Arab states of the Middle East. In this sense, the Sirtica marks the dividing point between the Maghrib and the Mashriq.
Along the shore of Tripolitania for more than 300 kilometers, coastal oases alternate with sandy areas and lagoons. Inland from these lies the Jifarah Plain, a triangular area of some 15,000 square kilometers. About 120 kilometers inland the plain terminates in an escarpment that rises to form the Jabal (mountain) Nafusah, a plateau with elevations of up to 1,000 meters.
In Cyrenaica there are fewer coastal oases, and the Marj Plain – the lowland area corresponding to the Jifarah Plain of Tripolitania – covers a much smaller area. The lowlands form a crescent about 210 kilometers long between Benghazi and Darnah and extend inland a maximum of 50 kilometers. Elsewhere along the Cyrenaican coast, the precipice of an arid plateau reaches to the sea. Behind the Marj Plain, the terrain rises abruptly to form Jabal al Akhdar (Green Mountain), so called because of its leafy cover of pine, juniper, cypress, and wild olive. It is a limestone plateau with maximum altitudes of about 900 meters. From Jabal al Akhdar, Cyrenaica extends southward across a barren grazing belt that gives way to the Sahara Desert, which extends still farther southwest across the Chadian frontier. Unlike Cyrenaica, Tripolitania does not extend southward into the desert. The southwestern desert, known as Fezzan, was administered separately during both the Italian regime and the federal period of the Libyan monarchy. In 1969 the revolutionary government officially changed the regional designation of Tripolitania to Western Libya, of Cyrenaica to Eastern Libya, and of Fezzan to Southern Libya; however, the old names were intimately associated with the history of the area, and during the 1970s they continued to be used frequently. Cyrenaica comprises 51%, Fezzan 33%, and Tripolitania 16% of the country's area.
Before Libya achieved independence, its name was seldom used other than as a somewhat imprecise geographical expression. The people preferred to be referred to as natives of one of the three constituent regions. The separateness of the regions is much more than simply geographical and political, for they have evolved largely as different socioeconomic entities – each with a culture, social structure, and values different from the others. Cyrenaica became Arabized at a somewhat earlier date than Tripolitania, and Beduin tribes dominated it. The residual strain of the indigenous Berber inhabitants, however, still remains in Tripolitania. Fezzan has remained a kind of North African outback, its oases peopled largely by minority ethnic groups.
The border between Tripolitania and Tunisia is subject to countless crossings by legal and illegal migrants. No natural frontier marks the border, and the ethnic composition, language, value systems, and traditions of the two peoples are nearly identical. The Cyrenaica region is contiguous with Egypt, and here, too, the border is not naturally defined; illegal as well as legal crossings are frequent. In contrast, Fezzan's borders with Algeria, Niger, and Chad are seldom crossed because of the almost total emptiness of the desert countryside.
Other factors, too, such as the traditional forms of land tenure, have varied in the different regions. In the 1980s their degrees of separateness was still sufficiently pronounced to represent a significant obstacle to efforts toward achieving a fully unified Libya.
Area - comparative: slightly larger than Alaska
Coastline: 1 770 km
Within Libya as many as five different climatic zones have been recognized, but the dominant climatic influences are Mediterranean and Saharan. In most of the coastal lowland, the climate is Mediterranean, with warm summers and mild winters. Rainfall is scanty. The weather is cooler in the highlands, and frosts occur at maximum elevations. In the desert interior the climate has very hot summers and extreme diurnal temperature ranges. The highest official temperature ever recorded was on September 13th, 1922 at Al 'Aziziyah, Libya
Less than 2% of the national territory receives enough rainfall for settled agriculture, the heaviest precipitation occurring in the Jabal al Akhdar zone of Cyrenaica, where annual rainfall of 400 to 600 millimeters is recorded. All other areas of the country receive less than 400 millimeters, and in the Sahara 50 millimeters or less occurs. Rainfall is often erratic, and a pronounced drought may extend over two seasons. For example, epic floods in 1945 left Tripoli underwater for several days, but two years later an unprecedentedly severe drought caused the loss of thousands of head of cattle.
Deficiency in rainfall is reflected in an absence of permanent rivers or streams, and the approximately twenty perennial lakes are brackish or salty. In 1987 these circumstances severely limited the country's agricultural potential as a basis for the sound and varied economy Qadhafi sought to establish. The allocation of limited water is considered of sufficient importance to warrant the existence of the Secretariat of Dams and Water Resources, and damaging a source of water can be punished by a heavy fine or imprisonment.
The government has constructed a network of dams in wadis, dry watercourses that become torrents after heavy rains. These dams are used both as water reservoirs and for flood and erosion control. The wadis are heavily settled because soil in their bottoms is often suitable for agriculture, and the high water table in their vicinity makes them logical locations for digging wells. In many wadis, however, the water table is declining at an alarming rate, particularly in areas of intensive agriculture and near urban centers. The government has expressed concern over this problem and because of it has diverted water development projects, particularly around Tripoli, to localities where the demand on underground water resources is less intense. It has also undertaken extensive reforestation projects.
There are also numerous springs, those best suited for future development occurring along the scarp faces of the Jabal Nafusah and the Jabal al Akhdar. The most talked-about of the water resources, however, are the great subterranean aquifers of the desert. The best known of these lies beneath Al Kufrah Oasis in southeastern Cyrenaica, but an aquifer with even greater reputed capacity is located near the oasis community of Sabha in the southwestern desert. In the late 1970s, wells were drilled at Al Kufrah and at Sabha as part of a major agricultural development effort. An even larger undertaking is the so-called Great Manmade River, initiated in 1984. It is intended to tap the tremendous aquifers of the Al Kufrah, Sarir, and Sabha oases and to carry the resulting water to the Mediterranean coast for use in irrigation and industrial projects.
arable land: 1%
permanent crops: 0%
permanent pastures: 8%
forests and woodland: 0%
other: 91% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 4 700 km² (1993 est.)
Environment - current issues: desertification; very limited natural fresh water resources; the Great Manmade River Project, the largest water development scheme in the world, is being built to bring water from large aquifers under the Sahara to coastal cities