State Environment Minister plays down budget dispute, alleges media “misunderstanding”

State Minister for Environment and Energy Abdul Matheen Mohamed has played down a report that his department yesterday slammed the proposed state budget for neglecting the “fundamental rights” of Maldivians, claiming there had been a “misunderstanding” with local media.

The Sun Online news agency yesterday reported that senior environment ministry officials had raised fears before the Majlis’ National Development Committee that it had been allotted an insufficient budget for proposed water and sewerage projects needed across the country.

Environment Ministry Permanent Secretary Ahmed Saleem was quoted as claiming that some 15 projects proposed by his department had been excluded from the budget is being debated within parliament this week. These projects were said to deal with issues including waste management, as well as supplying water and sewerage systems to more islands around the Maldives.

Saleem was reported as saying that complaints over the matter had also been sent to Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad, who had in turn had responded that any amendments to the budget would have to be made through the Majlis with support of MPs.

Both finance chief  Jihad and Economic Development Minister Ahmed Mohamed were not responding to calls from Minivan News at the time of press.

Speaking following yesterday’s meeting with the National Development Committee, Permanent Secretary Matheen claimed that Saleem’s reported comments had been the result of a “misunderstanding” by its author.  He alleged that the journalist had focused on a few points of a long meeting with the committee.

While Matheen said that there were some “concerns” about the present status of the budget allocated to the Environment Ministry, he that alleged the article’s conclusions were “very misleading”.

“The budget issue is very sensitive right now, so i’m afraid I cannot make any comments about the matter at present,” he said. “The islands are all asking what they will have from the ministry.”

Matheen added that he was presently unable to comment on the exact nature of the “misunderstanding” contained within the Sun Online report due to the fact discussions on finalising the state budget were ongoing.

Jumhoree Party (JP) MP Hassan Adil, a member of the National Development Committee, was unavailable for comment when contacted on the challenges in trying to balance ministry expenditure in the current economic climate, asking Minivan News to call this evening. However, Adil was not answering calls at the time of press.

Budget discussion

Presenting the budget to parliament last week, Finance Minister Jihad explained that next year’s budget deficit was to be financed with MVR 971 million (US$62 million) as budget support and MVR 1.3 billion (US$84 million) from Treasury bill (T-bill) sales.

However, as debate on the budget commenced yesterday amidst, regularly coming to a halt due to frequent loss of quorum – most MPs complained of the lack of funds allocated for development projects in their constituencies.  these projects included developments such as harbours, water and sanitation systems, additional classrooms and upgrades to health centres.

Meanwhile,  it was revealed last week that the proposed budget for defence expenditure for 2013 was found to be 14 percent higher than the funds allocated during 2012.

A total of MVR 930.9 million (US$60.3 million) was proposed for defence expenditure, which amounts to 5.5 percent of the total budget.

Balance of payments

With the Majlis currently contemplating the 2013 budget, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission to the Maldives last month noted that a ballooning fiscal deficit had “implied a rise in the public debt ratio, which now stands at over 80 percent of GDP.

According to the organisation, these developments also helped to boost national imports, thus worsening dollar shortages in the economy and putting pressure on MMA (Maldives Monetary Authority) reserves.”

The IMF forecast for the current account deficit was “nearly 30 percent of GDP this year.”

“Gross international reserves at the MMA have been declining slowly, [and] now account for just one and a half months of imports, and could be more substantially pressured if major borrowings maturing in the next few months are not rolled over,” the IMF mission warned.

The mission recommended formulating “a realistic and prudent budget for 2013″ to rein in the fiscal deficit, suggesting hiking taxes and “selectively” reversing import duty reductions.

According to an overview of the economy presented by the Finance Ministry along with the state budget (Dhivehi) proposed to parliament last week, the current account deficit in 2012 was expected to be 27 percent of GDP.

Water shortages

Following water shortages that authorities said affected over 100 inhabited islands back in May, Addu City Mayor Abdulla Sodig at the time claimed financial support was the key challenge in ensuring sufficient supplies of drinking water to the public, even with the assistance of local resorts and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).

Minivan News reported back in April that in the country’s southerly Addu Atoll, an estimated 90 percent of the local population were reliant on rainfall to bolster their drinking water supplies.

Numerous islands in the atoll are said to experience severe supply issues for drinking water annually as a result.


Political turmoil and lack of cash challenging supply of drinking water to islands

Islands are hoping for a reprieve to water shortages as the dry season ends, while political turmoil stalls drinking water supply projects.

The Maldives’ Disaster Management Centre has said long-term strategies are being developed to address ongoing drinking water shortages affecting 117 inhabited islands this year alone. The focus comes as some local authorities raise concerns over the level of financial support set aside to assist with dwindling water supplies.

Disaster Management Centre Project Officer Hisan Hassan told Minivan News that in just a “short space of time”, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) had moved to refill public water tanks on 86 of the 117 islands that have raised concerns over water availability.

Local authorities in Addu Atoll have said that as the country’s “dry season” – resulting from the north-east monsoon – draws to an end for this year, heavier rainfall is expected to partly alleviate short-term pressures on island water supplies. However, the same authorities stressed that finance remains a key challenge to ensure water demand can be met in the future through projects like desalination plants and collection tanks.

Looking beyond the drinking water shortages that have arisen during the first four months of 2012, Hisan Hassan claimed a cabinet paper was now being prepared to outline longer-term measures for managing water supplies across the country. He said that the paper focuses on dividing the country into seven administrative regions that would take a more localised approach to shore up water supplies. An emergency operation had already been established to collect information from local islands on the current scale of water supply issues as part of this new focus, according to Hassan.

With a further 13 islands said to be facing uncertainty over their remaining reserves of drinkable water, the Disaster Management Centre said budgetary issues were a strong concern in dealing with possible demand surplus.

Hassan said that with the the country’s south-west monsoon wet season commencing this month, heavier rainfall was expected to be seen in the next few days on a number of islands dealing with low water supplies.

“Met Office predictions have suggested we will see heavy rain in the country’s north and south atolls,” he said. “We do not have confirmed information on this, so we will checking these weather patterns to see if the rain will replenish supplies.”

Minivan News reported last month that in the country’s southerly Addu Atoll, an estimated 90 percent of the local population were reliant on rainfall to bolster their drinking water supplies. Numerous islands in the atoll are said to experience severe supply issues for drinking water annually as a result.

Tsunami impact

Hisan Hassan claimed that the issue of island water supplies had been an ongoing problem for the Maldives since 2004, when a large number of islands were affected by the December 26 tsunami that devastated the wider South Asia region.

“What has happened was that after the tsunami in 2004, 80 percent of islands including the country’s resort properties were flooded with salt water,” he said. “This salt water contaminated ground water, which is the main source of drinking water for many islands.”

From a meteorological perspective, Met Office Deputy Director General Ali Shareef said that the levels of rainfall during the first four months of the current year had been below the national average for the period.

Though unwilling to speculate whether the patterns were part of a trend, Shareef claimed that similar below average rainfall had been recorded over the same period of time in both 2011 and 2010. He added that temperature – another issue likely to impact water consumption – was found to have been consistent in recent years.

The Met Office said the issue of rainfall was just one of a number of factors that had compounded water supply issues of late.

With a growing national population, Shareef said he believed that another concern was over the capacity of the nation’s water collection tanks, which he contended were increasingly struggling to meet demand.

“The water shortages are not completely based on the amount of rain. This year’s [average] rainfall is just about higher than in 2011,” he said. “We may also need to look at how consumers in the country are using their water supplies.”

Addu Atoll is one area that has experienced ongoing problems with maintaining drinking water levels. A number of islands in the atoll such as Feydhoo and Hithadhoo have requested assistance in boosting their supplies.

Addu City Mayor Abdulla Sodig said that in addressing these concerns, some local resort properties, as well as the MNDF’s southern command had been “very supportive” during the last few years in helping to maintain water supplies to the region.

“The MNDF have been very supportive since day one. We have also been getting support from certain resorts that have actually been supplying free water,” he said.

According to Sodig, with the 2012 dry season now having officially passed, an anticipated increase in rainfall was expected to alleviate present concerns about water levels.

“We’re getting enough rain now and I think the problems [with water supplies] will be solved for the moment,” he added.

Looking ahead to the next year, Sodig claimed financial support was proving to be the key challenge in ensuring sufficient supplies of drinking water to the public.

“The regional port here for example has a desalination plant that can distribute water. The MNDF also has one as well, though this is smaller in capacity,” he said. “There are enough desalination plants here to produce water, so the challenge remains a financial one. At present we are buying water from desalination plants at Rf90 per tonne (US$6).”

Sodig alleged that despite providing financial support back in 2009 and 2010 to aid water supply efforts , the Disaster Management Centre had not been providing as much economic assistance of late.

He added that last year, the government had initiated a multi-million dollar water management and sanitation project in collaboration with a foreign infrastructure specialist.

According to Sodig, the potential benefits of the project are expected to be seen in the next few months through the provision of water supplies directly to homes on the island of Hithadoo.

He raised concerns about the long-term viability of the part government-funded project, due in part to political uncertainty following the controversial transfer of power on February 7.

“Right now the project is trying to get a loan from a UK-based company,” he claimed. “However, this has been withheld due to the political situation here.  The loan will not be handed over until elections are held.”

Asked about the challenges facing the government in addressing the country’s water supply shortages, President’s Office Media Secretary Masood Imad requested Minivan News contact the local water board.

“If you were in another country, you wouldn’t contact the White House or Buckingham Palace about water shortages,” he said.


Vice President urges companies to fulfil social responsibilities

Speaking at the 15 anniversary function of Malé Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) at the Fen Building, Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed urged all business organisations in the Maldives to give special attention to fulfilling their corporate social responsibility.

Dr Waheed said, as the largest water provider in the country, the MWSC was undertaking a great responsibility.

He called on the company to fulfill its social responsibility and keep in mind the greater benefit of the people, while still working to maximise its profit.

Dr Waheed said clean drinking water and more affordable and accessible services for the less fortunate of the country should be given special consideration.

He said access to clean drinking water and adequate sewerage facilities was a Constitutional right of Maldivians, and it is the state’s responsibility to provide these services.

Dr Waheed said the MWSC had been providing clean water for half the population, and added the government established provincial utilities companies to provide for the rest of the population.

Dr Waheed also presented the company’s annual employee awards.