Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Treating water sources in Maldivian islands hard-hit by the tsunami

© UNICEF Maldives/ 2006/Taylor
In the Maldives, a young boy stands under a stream of clean water – a scarce commodity on many of the nation’s islands.

By Rob McBride

MEEDOO, Maldives, December 2006 – Govindarajan Saravanan, a United Nations Office for Project Services engineer working on a UNICEF contract, moves from house to house on the small island of Meedoo checking for groundwater contamination.

At one house, the water has a white cloudy colour and smells horribly. At another, the water is clear but still bears an intense odour. It turns out that on this island, as in much of the Maldives, the wells that residents use for their daily water supply sit perilously close to their septic tanks. 

“This kind of set-up is causing contamination of the ground water,” Govindarajan says, noting that leaks from these tanks have caused human sewage to spill into the groundwater table, severely polluting it.

Tsunami exacerbates water problems

The lack of potable water on Meedoo is a relatively new phenomenon. Ibrahim Ali, a 51-year-old islander, says the community was always able to rely upon the well water for all its needs when he was growing up.

But over the years, water quality has deteriorated. Zahura Abdullah, 19, says that she sometimes has to boil the water just to wash her infant son. 

For some time now, most islanders in the Maldives have relied upon the regular rains for their drinking water. The tsunami two years ago heavily damaged many rainwater harvesting systems here. That damage, combined with the continuing contamination of the water table, has prompted a commitment to a long-term solution to the islands’ water and sanitation needs.

© UNICEF Maldives/ 2006/Taylor
Young Maldivian workers provide water purification using a mobile UNICEF desalination truck.

Chronic undernutrition

Standing in front of a map of the island in his office, Mr. Govindarajan shows the location for a new self-contained sewage treatment works that will eventually take the wastewater from all the houses in this neatly laid-out community.

Using power partially provided by solar energy, this new plant aims to be sustainable with minimal effort well into the future. It also looks to solve another problem chronic on these sandy atolls, that of undernutrition among the children.

Living off a diet consisting mainly of the staples of fish, bread, and rice, children here are not getting an adequate intake of fresh fruit and vegetables. UNICEF and its local partner are concerned at the stunted growth among children in some of the more remote atolls that is suggested by some studies.

Hopes for a bountiful future

Once the sewage treatment system is up and running, it will provide solid compost for agriculture on this and neighbouring islands. Already, tests are being carried out to see how much agriculture can be supported – and the results are encouraging.

“We’ve already started in three houses to see how they use this compost to develop their backyard gardening for vegetables and fruits,” said Mr. Govindarajan. “And we have found good results.”

It has been two years since the tsunami devastated this part of the world. The rebuilding process has islanders looking forward to having their paradise home restored to them. With sewage treatment schemes like this one, there is hope that the paradise can once again be a bountiful one.




December 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on progress made repairing contaminated water sources in tsunami-affected Maldivian communities.
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