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.


Ihavandhoo islanders to pray for rain after twelve month drought

Haa Alif atoll Ihavandhoo Island Council has called for a communal prayer on Friday morning to pray for relief from drought.

Council President Mohamed Asif told Minivan News that islanders have run out of drinking water and are now relying on store bought desalinated water.

“It hasn’t rained on Ihavandhoo for about a year. Even during the recent rains, Ihavandhoo did not receive the blessing of rain,” he said.

The ‘Isthisqa’ prayer is to be held at the island’s football field.

According to Asif, the island’s groundwater is no longer potable due to the intrusion of saltwater and runoff from sewage.

Ihavandhoo, an island of 3000 people in the country’s northernmost atoll, has reported water shortages every dry season in recent years. Each household has a 2,500 liter tank for rainwater harvesting, but the tanks have run dry due to the prolonged dry season.

Fathimath Zahira, 46, said her three-person household ran out of water last week. She spends approximately MVR60 (US$ 4) on buying water from the store every day.

“God willing, I will go to the prayers,” she said.

Assistant Director at the Ministry of Environment and Energy, Afsal Hussein, said water shortages are linked to climate change.

“Changes to global climate are causing shorter wet seasons and prolonging dry seasons,” he said.

The National Disaster Management Center has already transported 100 tonnes of water to the island in recent months. A new shipment is expected to arrive this week.

Water shortages are a recurring problem on several islands and the ministry is now working on a sustainable solution to the problem, Afsal said.

“Right to safe water is guaranteed by the constitution. The main concept we are using is called integrated water management which means managing all available sources of water – ground water, rain water and desalinated water – to solve water shortages,” he said.

Integrated water management includes recharging groundwater aquifers, increasing rainwater harvests and establishing desalination plants.

Ihavandhoo is one of the three islands were an integrated water management project is ongoing. Councillor Asif said the project will be completed at the end of the year and will provide relief from.

A pioneering project to desalinate water using excess heat from electricity generation was launched in Gulhi, Kaafu atoll, in February. The project, with the potential to produce 8000 litres of clean water per day, will be used in other islands should it prove successful in Gulhi.

Meanwhile, several islands in the Maldives have reported “black rain” showers in the Maldives.

The Public Health Unit (PHU) in early May warned Baa atoll Eydhafushi Island residents against drinking or cooking with black rain.

Similar incidents of black colored rain were reported in 2013 Haa Dhaal Atoll Nolhivaram Island and Haa Dhaal Atoll Kurimbi Island, and in Dhaalu atoll Meedhoo Island.

However, little seems to be known about the health implications of this occurrence. Islanders have speculated that the phenomenon maybe acid rain.


Government defies parliament vote, moves Immigration under Defence Ministry

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan has decided to defy parliament’s decision to not endorse the transfer of the Immigration Department to the Ministry of Defence, and make the change without parliament’s consent.

The government of President Waheed on Tuesday sought parliament’s approval to move Immigration department, National Disaster Management Centre and Aviation Security Command under the Defence Ministry led by Minister of Defense, retired Colonel Mohamed Nazim.

However, the parliament by a majority of 27 to 23 votes decided to disapprove the departmental shuffling.

During the debate on the request by the President’s Office to endorse the changes to the defence ministry’s mandate, MP Mohamed Rasheed of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) proposed a motion against approving the changes.

The motion against approving the changes was passed after four MPs from the government-aligned Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), including its presidential candidate Yameen Abdul Gayoom, backed the MDP’s motion.

Other PPM MPs who voted with the opposition include MP Ahmed Mahloof, MP Mujthaaz Fahmy and MP Ibrahim Riza.

The article 116 of the constitution states that the President – despite having the discretionary power determine the jurisdiction of the ministries – is required to submit all information relating to the ministries and their areas of jurisdiction to the parliament for its approval.

In December 2012, the responsibility for overseeing the Department of Immigration and Emigration was switched to the Ministry of Defence and National Security. The President’s Office claimed the decision to move the department under the mandate of Defence Ministry was made in a bid to make administration of the country’s immigration system more efficient.

President Waheed on Wednesday decided to make the change anyway despite parliament’s objection, with the result that approval will again be sought via parliamentary vote.

Following parliament’s decision, Attorney General Aishath Bisham told local news outlet CNM that despite parliament’s disapproval, the Department of Immigration and Emigration can still operate under the watch of the Defence Minister.

According to Bisham, the president has the power to transfer the department to any ministry under section 35 of the Immigration Act. However, Bisham said the president had sent the matter to parliament to adhere to the requirement stated in article 116 of the constitution which requires parliamentary approval for changes in mandates of cabinet portfolios.

Bisham also said that the government would again resubmit the matter to parliament concerning the transfer of Disaster Management Centre and Aviation Security Command to the Defence Ministry.

Speaking to Minivan News, opposition MDP MP Imthiyaz Fahmy – who is also a member of parliament’s Executive Oversight Committee (EOC) – alleged President Waheed was undermining the constitution and the laws of the country by attempting to militarise state institutions.

“The constitution clearly states that any changes brought to the mandate of a government ministry must be approved by the parliament. If the president can do whatever he wishes to do, why is it in the constitution stated that such decisions require parliamentary approval?” Fahmy questioned.

Fahmy claimed that any decision disapproved by parliament would be deemed invalid and therefore could not be considered to have legal effect.

“The reason to obtain parliamentary approval for such decisions is to have proper accountability. It is the duty of the parliament to hold the government accountable,” Fahmy added.

The Immigration Department has come under heavy fire from the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) – the independent institution responsible for prevention of corruption and corrupt practices – over alleged corrupt activities including the signing of establishing a border control system with Malaysian mobile security provider Nexbis.

The ACC have taken the matter to Parliament’s Finance Committee claiming that the deal with Nexbis will cost the Maldives MVR 2.5 billion (US$162 million) in potential lost revenue over the lifetime of the contract.

The former Controller of Immigration Sheikh Ilyas Hussain – brother-in-law of President Waheed – stands accused of corruption charges over the Nexbis deal. The trial of Illyas Hussain is currently being heard at the Criminal Court, where he has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Ilyas is accused of omitting from the concession agreement clauses that required Nexbis to provide 29 scholarships and 200,000 identity cards free of charge. The clauses were in the original technical proposal submitted by Nexbis to the tender evaluation board.

If convicted, the state minister could face either a jail term of up to three years, banishment or house arrest.