“This story is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis. For more clean water news, photos, and information, visit National Geographic’s Freshwater website.
“In the world’s driest places, “fossil water” is becoming as valuable as fossil fuel, experts say.
“This ancient freshwater was created eons ago and trapped underground in huge reservoirs, or aquifers. And like oil, no one knows how much there is—but experts do know that when it’s gone, it’s gone. (See a map of the world’s freshwater in National Geographic magazine.)
“You can apply the economics of mining because you are depleting a finite resource,” said Mike Edmunds, a hydrogeologist at Oxford University in the Great Britain.
“In the meantime, though, paleowater is the only option in many water-strapped nations. For instance, Libya is habitable because of aquifers—some of them 75,000 years old—discovered under the Sahara’s sands during 1950s oil explorations.
“The North African country receives little rain, and its population is concentrated on the coasts, where groundwater reserves are becoming increasingly brackish and nearing depletion.
“Since Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi launched his Great Man-Made River Project in the 1980s, an epic system of pipes, reservoirs, and engineering infrastructure is being built. It will be able to pump from some 1,300 paleowater wells and move 230 million cubic feet (6.5 million cubic meters) of H2O every day.
“But while fossil water can fill critical needs, experts warn, it’s ultimately just a temporary measure until conservation measures and technologies become status quo.
“But the project has encountered an unexpected stumbling block. The Disi’s fossil water was recently found to contain 20 times the radiation levels considered safe for drinking. The water is contaminated naturally by sandstone, which has slowly leached radioactive contaminants over the eons.
“Geochemist and water-quality expert Avner Vengosh of Duke University, one of the scientists who first discovered the problem, said the Disi’s situation is not unusual.
“Radiation contamination has been found in Israel, Egypt, Saudia Arabia, and Libya, Vengosh said.
“Fortunately, radiation contamination can be fixed through a simple water-softening process, though it does cost money and creates radioactive waste that must be disposed of properly, he noted.”
read more: National Geographic