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Protecting environment through technology

A shy ten-year-old girl with big eyes and a blue school-tie, Minha Rasheed sits quietly and politely on a red plastic chair surrounded by grown-ups finishing a field monitoring visit to Nilandhoo Island. Struggling to recite the names of hydrocarbon greenhouse gases and soil erosion prevention practices from her grade five environmental studies subject, Minha screws up her face and pushes her hands together, hoping the interview will end soon. Now they ask her family about solar power on the island. The translator says that there is none. The new UNICEF sanitation system will be the first use on Nilandhoo Island.

For a second Minha loses her shyness and announces to the group: “Plants use solar energy. We plant things and get solar energy”.  

For the Maldives, an archipelago sitting a few centimetres above the Indian Ocean, life has traditionally been a struggle against the four elements. The sandy earth yields little food, the winds change instantly from blessing to curse, fuel for cooking is precious and, above all else, finding fresh, clean water has always been a challenge. A difficult life; but for over a thousand years, Maldivians have built majestic wide flat boats, put their faces to the wind and fought the elements to bring back rich harvests of tuna, to grow food where they could, and to provide shelter to boats crossing the busiest ocean in the world.

Then came the tsunami, the biggest disaster in the nation's history. For a few minutes it seemed as if there would be no more Maldives, as all but nine of the 200 inhabited islands were flooded. When the waters receded, Maldivians were surprised to find an international outpouring of help; the type that they have always given to Indian Ocean travellers.

“Build back better,” they were told, and this is what they are doing. Maldivians are working with UNICEF to radically alter their relationship with the environment. Instead of fighting the elements, they are using technology to embrace them.

First and foremost, they are changing their relationship to water and earth, their greatest challenges. They are doing this through a program supported by UNICEF that will improve the soil and ensure safe drinking water, year-round. From 2005-2007, UNICEF delivered over 4000 household rainwater harvesting kits and over 2500 collective rainwater tanks for public buildings on 168 islands across all atolls.

A pilot sanitation project may go a long way to ensure sustainability on four islands. For the first time, on each of these islands, one sewage system will feed from every household, instead of the current patchwork of homemade, poorly-maintained septic tanks with polluted run-off. The new system will be low-emission, enabling the tsunami-damaged water lenses on each of the four islands to recover. Treated sewage will be converted into compost for backyard gardens and fruit trees, which will be irrigated from wells that are no longer needed for drinking water.

In preparation for this sewage dividend, UNICEF is working with communities to develop small scale agriculture. Schoolchildren in environmental clubs and classes are helping to spread new backyard gardening techniques and already fuelling a rising demand for compost.

To ensure their positive impact on the environment, the new sanitation systems are  solar-assisted. Solar power is more expensive than diesel and a bit more difficult to maintain, but the islanders overwhelmingly insisted on it.

Now that they are developing a better relationship with earth and water, Maldivians can turn their attention to air and fire. The country wants to be an international leader in the fight to reverse global warming and the rising sea-levels that threaten its precious coastlines, coral reefs, and backyard gardens. They see this as a way to embrace the elements, rather than fight them, and to give something back to the international community that was there when they needed help.



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