Humanitarian Situation In Tripoli Increasingly Dire

August 27, 2011

Jason Beaubien

Though rebels have consolidated control over Tripoli, life in the Libyan capital grows more difficult by the day. Residents scramble just to get basic supplies, such as food and water.

The city's tap water normally comes from what Moammar Gadhafi touted as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," the Great Man-Made River. The system channels water from deep wells in the desert to Tripoli and other parts of Western Libya.

But this system has been down now for more than a week. Residents have started hauling in water in tanker trucks and distributing it outside mosques, in parking lots and sometimes just in the middle of the street.

In the Zawiyat Addhmani neighborhood near downtown Tripoli, a gaggle of boys and young men fill plastic bottles, buckets and washbasins from the back of a truck.

"We can live without water, we can live without electricity, we can live without food, but we can't live with Gadhafi," says Mohamed Halifa, who wears a shirt in green, red and black — the colors of the rebel movement.

A few food shops reopened Saturday, but many of their shelves were already stripped of supplies. One man said bottles of water are being resold on the street for five times their normal price.

The International Committee of the Red Cross just ferried in medical supplies on a boat to help restock the capital's beleaguered emergency rooms.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned of the "urgent need" to restore order in Tripoli to avert a humanitarian disaster.

Some residents may be accepting the difficult situation as the cost of ousting Gadhafi, but others imply that the rebels are to blame and need to fix it.

Outside a mosque, Halifa Tabib says people right now need just about everything, but there are critical shortages of food, water, medicine and fuel.

Tabib says the leaders of the rebel's Transitional National Council must move immediately from Benghazi to Tripoli, get out to the Great Man-Made River and figure out what is wrong.

The rebels are only beginning to consolidate control over the capital, however. Neighborhood militias are manning checkpoints in the streets, and with the ousted Gadhafi government on the run, aid groups say it's difficult to figure out who they should coordinate with to provide humanitarian assistance.

On the streets rumors are rampant that the retreating Gadhafi troops poisoned the city's water supply or blew up key parts of the infrastructure. There are conflicting explanations even from the TNC about what's going on. A spokesman for the rebels in Benghazi says the TNC did shut off the water to check if it had been poisoned.

Mohamed Ahmish, with the Tripoli Organizing Committee of the TNC, says the answer is far simpler. He says due to power outages about 300 wells in the desert south of Tripoli went off line.

Engineers were unable to reset the wells because Gadhafi forces had come to the area, threatening them with weapons and taking their vehicles. Ahmish says the engineers are afraid to go back and don't have the transportation anyway.

Whatever the explanation for the water crisis, Ahmish says, once the pumps are switched back on it will take a couple of days before water will reach the capital. He says the rebel leadership is trying to organize a force to secure the wells but it's unclear how long that will take.

What is clear is that the Libyan capital is going to be without tap water well into next week at a minimum.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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