Permanent water crisis for Maldives islanders

Every January, councillors on the central Maldivian island of Baa Atoll Goidhoo switch on the island’s water desalination plant in preparation for the dry season.

In doing so, the council hopes to scrape through the blistering heat of the four-month-long northeastern monsoon without having to rely on others to provide its 700 inhabitants with clean water.

However, this year the council was not able to fire up the plant because of severe budget constraints and maintenance issues.

“The government is not giving us money to repair it. How can we fix and run the plant while we can’t afford its electricity bill?” asked council president Mohamed Amir.

“The households have now run out of water,” Amir said.

“Every dry season we have the same problem.”

Amir had no choice but to notify the National Disaster Management Centre of severe water shortages, becoming one of over 69 islands to have reported droughts this year alone.

Since its inception in 2004 after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the centre has been providing water to about 80 of the Maldives’ 200 inhabited islands each dry season for the last ten years, says Hisaan Hassan, a spokesman for the centre.

The tsunami severely contaminated groundwater in several islands, forcing inhabitants to look up to the skies for rainwater instead.

When a fire in the capital, Malé, cut off water supplies last year, the crisis drew global media attention and prompted the public to ask how prepared the government is for an emergency water cutoff.

However, islanders who face the same problem every year remain hopeless, with no permanent solution in sight.

Environmental consultant and water expert Fathimath Saeedha says that the government needs to immediately come up with strategic, yet island-specific solutions.

Contaminated groundwater

Unlike in Malé, where the groundwater is heavily polluted due to over-consumption, islanders in atolls used to rely on groundwater for consumption.

However, thanks to a rapid population increase and the arrival of appliances such as washing machines, groundwater consumption in the islands has increased above the rate at which groundwater is naturally replenished, said the environment ministry.

In addition, the ministry points the finger towards the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which heavily polluted many islands’ fresh water table, lying one to 1.5 meters below the soil surface. The tsunami killed at least 82 people in the Maldives and caused $470m of damage.

However, a United Nations Environmental Programme tsunami impact study in 2005 estimated that only 39 islands’ groundwater had been suitable for drinking even before the tsunami.

Water expert Saeedha also pointed out that poorly constructed septic tanks in the islands have contributed to water contamination.

“People built septic tanks on their own, which led to domestic waste leaking into the water table,” said Saeedha.

With the groundwater contaminated, inhabitants then had to rely on rainwater for consumption. In 2005, the government provided islands with large numbers of storage tanks to store rainwater.

However, with low average rainfall during the dry season, numerous islands are left in a drought every year, forced to rely on the disaster centre for drinking water.

Ready for droughts

Umar Fikry, another spokesman for the disaster centre, says that it has urged all island councils to inform the centre of water shortages in advance.

“We are prepared and ready for the water shortages every year,” Umar said.

He says that islands usually report water shortages to the centre when they are down to one month’s supply.

However, the National Disaster Management Centre is among those questioning whether the centre should be called upon to deal with shortages every year.

“We spend an average of MVR 5 million (US$ 330,000) on delivering water to the islands [each year]. The problem cannot be solved by the disaster centre alone,” said the centre’s Hisan Hassan.

Hisan believes it is time for everyone from the environment ministry to island councils and the general public to get involved in looking for a permanent solution.

Individuals have to keep in mind this happens every year and focus on better water usage, while councils should work on getting better storage systems in place for the dry season, said Hisaan.

The Environment Ministry meanwhile is running a water programme aiming to create an integrated network of island water storage containers in 30 strategic locations.

Three of the island storage locations have been completed, while seven are undergoing construction. Furthermore the ministry has secured finance to build 14 new desalination plants, it said.

Unsuitable emergency plans

With the disaster centre called upon to provide large quantities of water, some islands have criticised the quality of the water that arrives.

“People did not use the water because there was a pungent smell in it. We should be provided with good quality water,” complained Baa Atoll Dharavandhoo council president Hussein Nazim.

Dharavandhoo is home to one of the busiest regional airports in the country, bringing in tourists from the capital to the atoll’s eight resorts.

Nazim said that he was told that the water arrived from nearby Dhuvaafaru in the storage area of a fishing boat.

Some islanders had to resort to pumping water from households lucky enough to have clean well water, he added.

A resident of nearby Goidhoo said that it is “immensely difficult” to fulfill essential water needs during the dry season.

“Every house has a water tank which runs out during the dry season. Now we have to go to the water plant on the beach through the boiling sun,” she complained.

Tailor made solutions”

Water expert Faathimath Saeedha says there is no one overall solution to the annual water crisis, with different areas instead needing a “tailor-made solution”.

“Every island has very specific needs which need to be addressed,” she said. “Then only can we reach a permanent solution.”

It is important for the government to come up with a strategic plan to address the root cause of the issues for each island, she said.

Back in Goidhoo, council president Amir has been able to fire up the desalination plant with a “temporary fix which will last the current dry season”.

He believes that the situation will repeat itself again next year, with the councillors forced to resort to the barely functioning water plant, hoping for the best.


Maamigili integrated water supply scheme launched

A project to bring an integrated water supply system to the island of Maamigili, Alif Dhaal atoll, was launched yesterday.

The project will provide desalinated water through reverse osmosis, and will also incorporate storage tanks for rainwater collection and connections to residents’ homes.

The foundation stone was laid yesterday by Minister of Environment and Energy Thoriq Ibrahim and local MP and businessman Gasim Ibrahim.

The Ministry of Environment has revealed that the project will cost around MVR50 million and should be completed by the end of the year. The scheme will be implemented by the Malé Water and Sewerage Company.

Following the introduction of a pioneering desalination project in Kaafu atoll last week, Minister of State for Environment and Energy Abdul Matheen Mohamed told Minivan News that the government was emphasising integrated systems in order to make the best use of the resources currently available on the islands.

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.

Scarce fresh water supplies have become a growing problem in the Maldives, particularly since the contamination of much of the country’s groundwater following the 2004 tsunami. While rainwater is collected and stored for drinking on the islands, seasonal dry periods often leave locals reliant on outside sources for consistent supply of fresh water.


Pioneering desalination project launched in the Maldives

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.

Sustainable supply

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.


President inaugurates MWSC Production Centre in Maafushi

President Mohamed Nasheed inaugurated the MWSC’s (Malé Water and Sewerage Company) Production Centre in Maafushi on Saturday, which will provide desalinated water to the residents of the island.

President Nasheed noted the government recognised basic utilities like water and sewerage were essential for the development and prosperity of the people.

He said the government was aiming to provide these services in a sustainable manner, but needed support from the private sector which is why the government is pursuing a policy of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) to carry out developmental activities.

President Nasheed also said the government’s wish to create seven provinces was “not for political gain but for the benefit of all citizens.”

He said the government “does not desire to do anything through arguing and fighting in the People’s Majlis,” but is trying to do what is best for the citizens of the country.

He noted if anyone could explain why creating the provinces would obstruct the development of the country, “we are ready to concede.”


Gaafaru Wind Farm: the future of Male’s power?

The Gaafaru wind farm project to power the Male’ region will be operational by August 2013, the government has promised, although the cost has already soared to US$370 million from a predicted US$250 million.

The agreement between the State Electricity Company Limited (STELCO) and Falcon Energy to build and run a 75mW wind farm in Gaafaru, North Malé Atoll, should produce enough clean energy for Malé, Hulhulé and a number of resorts to “switch off their existing diesel power generators” according to the President’s Office.

The wind farm will be required to produce an uninterrupted minimum of 45mW. On windy days, “excess electricity…will be used to run a water desalination plant.” On calm days, there will be a gas turbine which can produce up to 50mW of back-up power.

GE Energy is the most likely candidate to supply the wind turbines, and will also be supplying a desalination plant and the 50 mW back-up generator powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The project’s local lead, Omar Manik, told Minivan News the Gaafaru wind farm is expected to completely replace the electricity currently produced and provided by STELCO, and should save the government about US$50 million a year.

Wind speed concerns

According to an American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) 2005 report, the minimum average wind speed needed to run a utility-scale wind power plants is 6 metres per second (21.6 km/h).

The AWEA report states that because “power available in the wind is proportional to the cube of its speed… doubling the wind speed increases the available power by a factor of eight.”

For example, a turbine operating at a site with an average of 20 km/h should produce 33 percent more electricity than a site operating at 19 km/h, because the cube of 20 is larger than the cube of 19.

This means that a difference of just 1 km/h in wind speed could significantly bring down productivity in the wind farm.

According to figures published in a 2003 report by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), North Malé Atoll has an annual average wind speed of 4.9 m/s (17.7 km/h), with the maximum average wind speed recorded of 8 m/s (28.8 km/h).

The Gaafaru wind farm is meanwhile expected to run on a minimum wind speed of 5.7 m/s.

Manik explained that wind farm engineers relied on [a minimum wind speed of] 15 m/s for a utility farm ten years ago, but due to efficiency gains “today it’s 3.5 m/s.”

Most of the data used for the Gaafaru project was collected by Manik, with help from the Department of Meteorology, at both 40 and 80 meters above ground.

Manik noted that the important thing when gathering wind speed data is “how high it is and how much wind there is. The higher you go, the better it is.”

The masts for the wind turbines at Gaafaru will be 80 metres high, with the propellers reaching a diameter of 50 metres. Manik explained “at 80 metres there will be very good wind.”

The wind farm

Manik said a preliminary feasibility study on wind speeds has been conducted and the project is moving forward as planned.

The project is being funded and run by UK-based Falcon Energy Group, but is represents a consortium of four companies; two from the UK, including Falcon Energy, one from Saudi Arabia and one from Holland. Currently, they are surveying wind power and negotiating prices for freight, turbines and gas supply.

The wind farm will use STELCO’s power grid, but will replace its powerplant in Male’.

“The powerhouse in Malé is limited, they have land problems, fuel price problems. We need renewable energy,” Manik explained.

The wind farm should produce from 60-70mW of energy, “which is still higher than what is required by the government,” Manik said. “STELCO will still be the provider. We are selling to them and they are providing.”

The wind farm is expected to run at 85 percent productivity, and any excess energy will be automatically sent to run the desalination plant.

Wind turbines

The project’s team is currently analysing how many turbines will be needed to produce the required 45mW of electricity. Manik noted that two 25mW turbines will be more costly than one 50mW turbine.

He said they are looking at turbines that use no oil at all, because “the most important thing for us is not the energy. It’s the coral reef,” and the turbines must therefore be 100 percent environmentally friendly.

They are also studying the pH and moisture levels in the water, Manik said, to prevent corrosion in the turbines. Anti-corrosive zinc tablets will be placed in the mast and the turbines to keep them from rusting.

The turbines will be shipped from Lisbon, Portugal, but it is proving difficult and expensive to ship them to Malé.

Back-up generator and desalination plant

The back-up generator and water desalination plant will be located in Hulhumalé and will be provided by GE. The back-up generator, a gas-powered turbine, will have a production capability of 50mW and should be installed in about eight months.

Energy produced by the back-up is expected to replace STELCO’s electricity by late next year. “The back-up generator will be the first thing to be installed,” Manik said, adding that the most important thing was relieving STELCO from having to purchase more generators next year.

He said they are currently negotiating the gas contract for the back-up with one company in Sri Lanka and one in India. First, they need to know how many gas tanks will be needed and what sizes they will need to be. Building the gas tanks, Manik said, will take about a year.

Because excess wind energy “cannot be bottled or stored,” it must be used. If it is not used, Manik explained, it will lower productivity, so any extra energy will go into powering the desalination plant.

The back-up will most likely run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) since it is the “the best option to get where we want to be: carbon neutral,” Manik said, but noted that petroleum gas (regular cooking gas) has a larger heating capacity and does not pollute the air much more than LNG.

Manik said the water produced in the desalination plant would most likely be sold to Hulhumalé, although the government has previously said it would use it for bottled water.

STELCO and power grids

The clean energy produced by the wind farm will be distributed through STELCO’s existing power grids in Malé, and distributed through new submarine cables. Manik noted the 60 km of submarine cables are very expensive to buy and lay out, and will have to be replaced in about 50 years.

He said the biggest issue with the grids is ensuring the current grids in Malé can handle the amount of energy that will be produced by the wind farm.

“If there are 75mW of power coming into this grid, this grid should handle that,” Manik said. He added that they still need to figure out whether the electricity will be coming in through STELCO’s main power generator or into the four individual grids set out in Malé.

Economics and timelines

Falcon Energy group is investing most of the US$370 million needed to fund this project. Manik noted a lot of that money will be loaned by international banks to Falcon Energy.

“International banks are very keen to invest in the Maldives,” he said, “but they need eighteen months of wind surveys. They are becoming partners, they don’t want to lose their money.”

Manik says although both Falcon Energy and the banks know there is “good wind,” they will only invest once they can see wind data collected over eighteen months, which would ensure the data is varied and accurate.

He said while the remaining wind surveys and the installation of the back-up generator are being conducted, once they have six months of data “to give us full confidence, then we will start planting the foundations for the wind turbines.”

“By the time the eighteen months are up, the turbines should be completed,” he added.

Manik said that while “the government doesn’t come up with any money, when you go into a big project like this, even the receiver has to do something, some work.”

The work he is referring to is the possibility that the government might have to “rearrange” how the clean energy will be brought into the city.

“They may have to lay some cables. Maybe. Minimum investment from the government.”

He said it would help if the project could “tap into” some of the funds recently donated to the country, both in the Donor Conference and the Climate Change Trust Fund, but said that is something they are not really thinking about.

“We have to use what is available now. And we also need to show that we are capable people.”

Manik said the cost of the project has risen from the original figure of US$250 million to US$370 million “because there is no infrastructure here, and it has to be built by us.”

The MoU states that Falcon Energy must provide an uninterrupted power supply to STELCO for twenty years “starting from a given date.”

“It has to always be transparent,” Manik said, “you are working with the government, it has to be clear.”

The wind turbines should be working by June 2013 and the back-up generator should be operational by October 2011.

Correction: the wind mast to carry out further tests is being sent from Portugal, not the turbines.