Trouble in paradise: Libya's idyllic Farwa Island at risk of ecological peril

This picture taken on June 10, 2021 shows an aerial view of Libya's Farwa Island [Getty Images]
14 September, 2021

Libya suffered a decade of turmoil after the 2011 rebellion that overthrew the long time strongman Muammar Gaddafi. During the ensuing civil war, environmental issues such as flooding and water scarcity received little attention despite their sometimes-deadly consequences.

Now that Libya’s fractious powerbrokers have reached a tentative political settlement, Libyan authorities can devote more resources to environmental protection. Even so, this newfound peace may be exacerbating an ecological crisis in a far-flung corner of Libya.

An August 8 report from Agence France-Presse noted Libyan environmentalists’ concerns about the future of Farwa, a 13-kilometre uninhabited island off Libya’s western coastline.

Defined by beaches and biodiversity, the little-known shoal offers some of the North African country’s most beautiful vistas. However, the Libyan environmental organisation Bado and other experts told AFP that fishing, tourism, and other disruptions were threatening Farwa’s unique qualities.

"Rising sea levels and the warming of the Mediterranean might upend the delicate balance underpinning the island’s ecosystem, jeopardizing one of Libya’s few nature reserves"

The lull in Libya’s conflict is enabling its citizens to pursue their livelihoods and travel the country with greater ease, a development with major implications for Farwa. According to Bado, fishermen from the Libyan city of Zuwarah are now using grenades to catch fish around the island; this destructive approach to fishing poses risks to Farwa’s vulnerable fauna, including loggerhead sea turtles. Greater numbers of war-weary Libyan tourists are also paying visits to the shoal’s beaches, leaving behind garbage that harms the natural environment.

Despite Farwa’s obscurity outside Libya, at least one international organisation appreciates the island’s significance: the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which goes by the abbreviation “IUCN” and counts government agencies and non-profits among its members.

A 2011 IUCN report on Libya’s marine habitats declared, “Farwa might be the most important coastal and marine site in western Libya, in terms of its high marine and coastal biodiversity.”

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The IUCN report described Farwa as part of “an area known for its high fishery productivity, but also its vulnerability to pollution and other man-made threats to the marine and coastal environment.” The report remarked on a particular danger to Farwa that predated the recent influx of fishermen and tourists: a petrochemical facility in the nearby village of Abu Kammash that represents “a continuous risk to the marine environment.” The IUCN observed “no pollution crises” stemming from the complex in 2011, but environmentalists have since raised the alarm.

Bado alleges that the Abu Kammash site, though deserted since 2010, pollutes the area around Farwa with heavy metals. In 2017, Francesc Gambús, then a Spanish member of the European Parliament concerned about the effects on the Mediterranean Sea, said that “the deterioration caused by the lack of maintenance means that ethylene, hydrochloric acid and other highly toxic substances are continuing to leak into the soil through cracks in the piping and storage tanks.”

In addition to Farwa’s most immediate man-made troubles, climate change could become a threat to the shoal in the long term. A landmark August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, part of the United Nations, called the Mediterranean “one of the most prominent and vulnerable climate change hotspots” in the world – an ill omen for Farwa. Rising sea levels and the warming of the Mediterranean might upend the delicate balance underpinning the island’s ecosystem, jeopardizing one of Libya’s few nature reserves.

Once famed for its exceptional wildlife, Libya's Farwa island risks becoming just another victim of lawlessness in the war-ravaged North African nation, activists struggling to save it warn [Getty Images]
Once famed for its exceptional wildlife, Libya's Farwa Island risks becoming just another victim of lawlessness in the war-ravaged North African nation, activists struggling to save it warn [Getty Images]

Different sources indicate that either the Libyan Environment General Authority or the Marine Biology Research Center, a research institute affiliated with the Libyan Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Marine Life, classified Farwa’s lagoon as a nature conservation area in 2009.

Nonetheless, any organized attempt at environmental protection grew far more difficult in the decade after Gaddafi’s downfall. As a result, the island experienced neglect in recent years.

A 2017 study by Libyan officials and scientists cited the ongoing threat of the Abu Kammash facility to Farwa and faulted “programs funded by national or international agencies” as “either short-termed or of opportunistic nature.”

Responsibility for the fate of Farwa has more or less fallen to environmental organisations such as Bado, which has worked to prevent beachgoers from snatching the eggs of turtles endemic to the area. In 2018, Bado partnered with Zuwarah fishermen to arrange a cleanup of the island and renovate its iconic lighthouse.

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The international community, for its part, has demonstrated some interest in securing Farwa from environmental degradation. Gambús, the Spanish politician, asked the European Commission whether it might “remedy the serious public health situation” resulting from the Abu Kammash petrochemical complex, and the IUCN report urged Libya and Tunisia to collaborate on a “transboundary protected area” in Farwa to “serve as a model of south-south cooperation.”

The approach taken by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, whose donors include France, Japan, the European Union, and the World Bank, may offer a more sustainable model. The group awarded a $20,000 grant to the Libyan Society of Artisanal Fishery Friends to teach “sustainable fishing in Lake Farwa” between September 2019 and July 2021.

The project aimed to “decrease illegal dynamite fishing” and “increase understanding regarding the danger of these practices,” a critical step to safeguard the endangered species that call Farwa home.

Empowering Libyan environmental organisations committed to Farwa’s future will likely prove more successful than funding the short-sighted programs that Libyan officials identified in their 2017 report. The shoal is confronting a number of threats. Whatever Libyan authorities and the international community do, Libyan environmentalists are leading the fight to save the island.

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired