The island of Gulhi, in Kaafu atoll, yesterday became the first place in the world to produce desalinated drinking water using waste heat from electricity generation.
The project – a joint venture between state electricity supplier STELCO and UK registered charity the Aquiva Foundation – will produce around 8000 litres of water for local consumption.
“We think this is a fantastic opportunity for the Maldives, but if it works in the Maldives the way we think it will, I think the world will look differently at desalinating water, because all of a sudden you can do it sustainably on a really large scale,” said Aquiva CEO Florian Bollen.
The lack of fresh drinking water in the country’s 190 inhabited islands – made worse with the contamination of groundwater following the 2004 tsunami – leaves most communities reliant on rainwater and vulnerable to shortages during the dry seasons.
However, the dispersed nature of the islands, and the lack of a national grid means that every inhabited island houses its own facilities for electricity generation.
Research carried out by Aquiva prior to the project suggeste that 95 percent of Gulhi’s inhabitants were unhappy with the water supply in the island, which leaves them reliant on impure rainwater for drinking and contaminated ground water for washing.
The UK charity has installed a membrane distillation unit behind the island’s generator which will use the excess heat produced by the cooling system to induce the distilling process.
Yesterday’s launch was attended by the Minister for Environment and Energy Dr Mariyam Shakeela, who noted that the improvement of water supply was one of the new government’s 100 day goals.
The ministry has recently inaugurated safe drinking water projects in both Haa Alif and Alif Dhaal as part of its drive to introduce integrated water resource management programmes across the country.
Minister of State for Environment and Energy Abdul Matheen Mohamed told Minivan News today that the government was emphasising integrated systems in order to make the best use of the resources currently available.
“Our policy is to use the available resources as much as possible,” said Matheen. “Just basically to reduce the water costs.”
“What we are doing in the existing islands is using reverse osmosis plants to desalinate the water, which is a very expensive method of getting fresh water. We have to find ways to reduce the water costs.”
In January, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development chose the Maldives from amongst 80 applicants to receive concessionary loans worth US$6 million (MVR92 million) for a clean energy project which could produce up to 62 million litres of desalinated water per year.
The ministry’s programmes also aim to raise local awareness on the protection, conservation, and use of water resources such as groundwater, rainwater, and desalinated water, explained Matheen.
He also noted that an integrated water approach included the use of renewable energy sources, predominantly solar power, which reduce the need to use expensive diesel. Ministry figures for 2012 show that 27 percent of imported fuel was used for electricity generation.
Reverse osmosis systems require fuel which powers a high pressure pump to produce the clean drinking water, a process which Aquiva CEO Bollen also noted was “very high maintenance”.
“You have to have 24 hour engineers on site. With our system, we don’t have any of those pressures. It’s based on very low pressure, it’s very easy to maintain. The staff which usually look after the generators can actually look after the desalination plant. That makes it really applicable to remote small island locations.”
The project will also lead to a reduction of waste – a perennial problem in the Maldives inhabited islands – as reusable containers will be used to collect the distilled water and distribute it to households, before being returned to the desalination plant.
In order to sustain its projects, the Aquiva foundation will provide its services at cost price, with any profits made being reinvested into further projects.