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Environment and health
During the 1970s, the quantity of water drawn from Male’s aquifer increased tremendously together with the amount of sewage disposed into the ground made it more susceptible to groundwater pollution. Water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, shigella and typhoid started spreading because of the poor sanitary conditions. In response to this problem, a special office was established in 1973, the Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority (MWSA). A study carried out by MWSA in Male revealed about 1.3 million litres of water were being used from the aquifer daily, the thickness of the freshwater lens had reduced to about 12 m and there was rapid deterioration of tgroundwater quality. This was because of a larger population and poor sanitary conditions.
Outbreaks of cholera in 1978 and shigella in 1982 claimed many lives. As a result, the Male Water Supply and Sewerage project was conceived (Ibrahim et al., 2002). Detailed surveys were carried out in 1980/1981. Subsequently, with assistance from West German Aid, the Saudi Fund for Development and the European Commission, the Government implemented the Male Water Supply and Sewerage Project in 1985. Under the project, the following work was carried out in Male between 1985 and 1988:
- eight boreholes were drilled to investigate the aquifer and for subsequent monitoring;
- large steel tanks were installed for storage of rainwater, with a total capacity of 9 900 m3;
- water from these tanks was pumped into a holding tank (600 m3) and later distributed from a water tower (95 m3) by gravity and distributed at 30 tap bays free of charge during selected hours;
- 1 154 household tanks were built, with a total capacity of 4 157 m3;
- new wells were sunk in mosques and disinfected well water was fed to tap bays located at these locations, and distributed to the public free of charge throughout the day; and
- a sewerage scheme was built for the whole island of Male. Sewage flows by gravity to sumps located in nine areas and is pumped from pumping stations into the deep sea without treatment through six outfalls located at four different places (Ibrahim et al., 2002).
In the 1990s, the population of Male continued to grow and increasing pressure was placed upon the island’s freshwater lens. Though the new sewerage scheme, using septic tanks and soakaways, helped to alleviate the pollution of the lens, it contributed to another problem. The increased volume of groundwater being used to flush toilets was no longer returning to the aquifer but was being discharged into the sea. As a result, the salinity of the aquifer increased sharply, limiting its usefulness as a resource. Because the available roof catchment area and the space available for rainwater storage was too limited to provide for Male’s increasing population, desalination became one of the few options available for providing sufficient safe water to Male.
In 1988 the first desalination plant was installed, a reverse osmosis plant with a capacity of 200 m3/day. Since then, more plants have been installed to satisfy demand, currently 5 000 m3 of desalinated water can be produced per day. In 1995 a joint venture company, Male Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) was formed and the responsibility was transferred for the operation and management of water supply and sewerage services in Male. The Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority became responsible for regulating this company, though it retains responsibility for providing services to the other inhabited islands (Ibrahim et al., 2002).
Outside the capital, the major source of groundwater pollution is poor household sanitation. Fortunately, there are relatively few heavy industries and intensive agriculture is practiced on only a couple of islands. The majority of households have septic tanks and soakaways. The tanks are often poorly built or have suffered from hydrogen sulphide corrosion and are prone to leakage. As a result, tanks are often full or nearly full of sludge and have very short retention times. Soakaways are usually deep pits, not shallow trenches. Rather than use the unsaturated soil above the water table to remove at least some of the pollutants from the septic tank effluent, they effectively create a shortcut for septic tank effluent to reach the groundwater below. These factors combine to cause the contamination of groundwater resources by septic tank effluent (Ibrahim et al., 2002).
When the December 2004 tsunami hit the Maldives, waves swept over many islands, affecting nearly one-third of the country’s inhabitants. The saltwater from the tsunami completely flooded the sewage systems, contaminating groundwater with raw sewage and creating unsanitary conditions and increasing the risk of disease. The powerful waves also destroyed much of the infrastructure by overflowing sewage catch-pits, bursting pipes and filling the air with a foul stench. The islands’ residents rely on groundwater as their main source of water for domestic activities such as cooking, cleaning and washing (ARC, 2006). An Asian Development Bank (ADB) grant for environmental management focuses predominantly on environmental health and awareness. It designed a strategy for reconstructing the water and sanitation sector following the tsunami and improving the country’s environmental assessment capability. It also tests innovative environmental public awareness programmes and promotes community management of sanitation and solid waste systems (ADB, 2006).