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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Water expert helps UNICEF restore supply on tsunami-affected islands

By Anthony Raby

© UNICEF Maldives/2005
Dr. Peter Wurzel with Maldivian children.

MALDIVES, 16 March 2005 - For over 30 years, Dr. Peter Wurzel has worked on rural water programmes throughout the world.  He grew up in Kenya and worked most of his life in Zimbabwe.  He has an impressive list of academic achievements, including undergraduate degrees in geology and chemistry, a doctorate in nuclear hydrology, and post-graduate degrees in medicine and surgery.

In February, Dr. Wurzel arrived in the Maldives to assist the UNICEF office in its emergency water and environment programmes for people affected by the tsunami. He spent the first few days assessing the damage.

“An estimated 30 to 40 per cent of rainwater harvesting equipment was damaged, and groundwater wells were contaminated by sea water. In the immediate period following the tsunami, only 15 affected islands had more than one or two weeks’ drinking water supply,” Dr. Wurzel said.

The lack of potable water created unsanitary conditions that could have resulted in the spread of disease, such as diarrhoea. 

To address these urgent needs, UNICEF partnered with OXFAM and the Red Cross and promptly began distributing water bottles, disinfection tablets, and water and hygiene kits to people on 69 severely affected islands in the Maldives.

© UNICEF Maldives/2005
A reverse osmosis unit is lowered onto a barge for transport.

“This assistance combined with private sector and bilateral contributions ensured that adequate levels of potable water were restored on each island, with stock of two to seven days available, within a few weeks after the onset of the emergency,” Dr. Wurzel said.

As time went by, the focus shifted to finding long-term solutions. On 9 March, the UNICEF water and environment team, led by Dr. Wurzel, installed on Hamafushi Island the first of 23 desalination units sent by UNICEF to the Maldives. This is part of UNICEF’s strategy to address ongoing relief requirements with assistance and provide essential tools for rebuilding. 

“Technically, they’re called ‘reverse osmosis’ or RO units,” Peter explained. “The ROs are expensive, about $75,000 per unit. They are also life-savers. Each unit is capable, every 8 hours, of an output of 10,000 litres. At 25 litres per person per day, this level of production covers 400 persons, and if we run them 24 hours a day we can triple that.”

Prior to receiving the RO units, the island communities agreed on a set of management and maintenance protocols. Five units will be moved around by boat in order to provide fresh water for various smaller islands. The other 18 are being installed on the most significantly affected islands. 

The units are attracting such attention that even island communities not directly affected by the tsunami are expressing interest in them.




March 2005:
Tom Bergmann-Harris UNICEF Representative in Maldives discusses how the money donated to UNICEF is being spent to help children.

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