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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Maldives: Turning the sea into fresh drinking water

© UNICEF Maldives/2005/Dan Thomas
UNICEF Water Consultant Dr Peter Wurzel chats to locally-trained engineers about a new mobile desalination unit provided by UNICEF to the tsunami-affected community on Dhiffushi Island. The desalination unit can transform sea water into drinking water.

By Dan Thomas

DHIFFUSHI ISLAND, Maldives, 22 March 2005 – All 1,015 inhabitants of this tiny low-lying island escaped with their lives when the tsunami crashed ashore on 26 December last year, but they immediately had to face another threat resulting from the tsunami. The fresh water table, just one metre below ground level, was flooded with sea water, rendering it unfit for drinking or cooking.

Three months later, the normal water supply is still unusable, so the inhabitants have turned to a new source of fresh water: desalinated seawater, processed by a mobile desalination unit supplied by UNICEF.

The gleaming white machine, which sucks up sea water and pumps out fresh water, is one of 23 units flown to the Maldives by UNICEF after the tsunami – part of a massive relief effort by the United Nations and its many partners.

Dr. Peter Wurzel, a water expert working with UNICEF, said that 18 units costing about $75,000 each are being supplied to the worst-affected islands. Five will be mounted onto boats so they can deliver water to especially isolated islands.

“It’s really great to see it working,” said Dr. Wurzel, who was visiting Dhiffushi Island to make sure that the mobile desalination unit was running properly.
Local engineers have been trained to use the units and the communities that have received the machines have committed themselves to providing manpower and maintenance.

Processing seawater and harvesting rainwater

© UNICEF Maldives/2005/ Dan Thomas
A pupil is momentarily distracted as she and her classmates learn about the importance of hand washing. UNICEF works with the Ministry of Education to promote life skills education.

Through a process called ‘reverse osmosis’, each unit is capable of supplying more than 10,000 litres of fresh water in an eight-hour day – enough for 500 people at an average consumption of 20 litres per day.

Fresh water is stored in large black polyethylene tanks supplied by UNICEF and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) in the immediate wake of the tsunami. 

The long-term solution to Maldivians’ need for fresh water may be as simple as using the water tanks to collect rain, as some householders like Aishatah Nazira and her husband are already doing. During a day-long heavy downpour, the gutters on their roof run down into a water tank, which can hold enough water for a family of four for about two or three months.

Dr Wurzel said that harvesting of rainwater has the potential to provide every islander with enough fresh water, provided only that they have access to sufficient storage capacity.

Hygiene education

Meanwhile, at Dhiffushi’s school, another example of UNICEF’s work is underway. Here assistant teacher Mariyam Husna teaches a class of six-year-olds about basic hygiene measures for health.

One by one, the Grade One pupils are called to the front of the class to demonstrate that they have learned how to use soap to wash their hands thoroughly.  It is a simple habit but one that has the potential to prevent illness for many years to come.

Across the Maldives, more than 100 people are dead or missing as a result of the tsunami which struck on 26 December 2004. All but nine of the country’s 1,190 low-lying islands were flooded by the tsunami waves and 13 have had to be totally abandoned. About 15,000 people, out of a population of 300,000, have been forced to abandon their homes.




21 March 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on how the organization is helping islanders in Maldives recover from the effects of the tsunami.

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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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