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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Maldives: Fresh water from the sea

© UNICEF Maldives/2005
Mothers and children fill plastic containers and bottles with fresh water from the UNICEF-provided desalination unit. The unit travels between the remote islands in the two Maldivian atolls providing water to people in need.

By Jadranka Milanovic

GURAIDHOO ISLAND, Maldives, 22 June 2005 – Saeeda Hassan and her children rush to the harbour of this tsunami-affected island every few days when the word spreads that the water boat is arriving.

“At times, there was no way to get water without a fight,” says Saeeda, who has nine children.

A crowd gathers on the jetty as the 90-foot dhoni (a traditional Maldivian boat), modified to carry a UNICEF-supplied desalination unit, moors. When fresh water begins to trickle from the pipe that extends from the boat, pandemonium breaks out. Hands clutching bottles and miscellaneous containers are thrust towards the pipe.

The 1,800 inhabitants of the small island of Guraidhoo faced severe water shortages in the early days following the tsunami of 26 December 2004. “We used only bottled water for drinking then,” recalls Saeeda. “For washing and bathing, well water was the only option, although it was salty and smelly.”  After the tsunami the underground water wells in most islands were contaminated by sewage, waste and salt water.

Reverse osmosis

To meet the most urgent needs, UNICEF initially began supplying bottled water for some 23,000 displaced people, along with chlorine and water purification tablets. The organization also replaced 2,500 cement rain water storage tanks with more modern ones made of high density polyethylene.

© UNICEF Maldives/2005
Islanders wait to fill the containers with water from the mobile water desalination unit.

While water harvesting remains the long-term solution for supplying fresh water in the Maldives, in the aftermath of the tsunami it was crucial to find other sources of potable water. Some islands had to cope with 100 per cent increase in population due to the arrival of people from other islands whose homes had been destroyed.

Furthermore, the tsunami struck during the dry season, which lasts for almost four months. Most of the islands were left with little or no drinking water.  

To fill the immediate gap and help establish a backup system, UNICEF provided 23 water desalination units, which use a technique called reverse osmosis to convert salt water into fresh.

“The mobile units serve the islands that have low storage capacity,” says Saeeda Mohamed, the Administration Director of the Maldivian Water and Sanitation Authority.

Ground water unfit for drinking

Five of these units are mounted on specially redesigned boats. The boats head out into the open sea every night and load up with sea water. The desalination units turn this into fresh water, which is delivered to the islands that need it most.

According to Musa Manik, the Island Chief of Guraidhoo, ground water remains unfit for drinking and cooking. “For the residents of Guraidhoo and the nearby islands there is only the desalinated seawater,” he says.

Each desalination unit produces 10,000 litres of fresh water in eight hours, enough for 500 people for one day. The fresh water is stored in the polyethylene tanks supplied by UNICEF, with financial assistance from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

“If we didn’t provide fresh water, there would almost be no drinking water on many islands,” says Adam Naseer, skipper on one of the specially equipped dhonis. “We are always on stand-by and ready to go wherever there is a need.”




20 June 2005:
UNICEF Correspondent Jane O’Brien reports on the efforts UNICEF is making to bring vital fresh water to the Maldives.

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