It’s tough to imagine having water problems on an island located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but that is exactly what thousands of people in the Maldives are facing.
The archipelago, approximately 400 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, is made up of 1,200 small coral islands, 200 of which are inhabited. Its highest point is less than eight feet (2.4 meters) above sea level. When the December 2004 tsunami hit, waves swept over many of the islands, affecting nearly one-third of the country’s 315,000 inhabitants. Survivors lost loved ones, homes, personal possessions and livelihoods.
The salt water from the tsunami completely flooded the island’s sewer systems, contaminating ground water 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.
In the weeks that followed, the American Red Cross, together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Federation), distributed water tanks to many of the affected islands. The Maldivian government also set up portable desalination systems for clean drinking water.
“The pain and suffering from the 2004 tsunami are still fresh in our minds,” said Ahmed Abdulla, Minister of Environment, Energy and Water for the Maldives. “But there is a new hope for survival, for building our country back up and for improving the quality of life for our people...thanks to a rewarding partnership with our friends in the Red Cross.”
Aishath Liusha, 23, has to use rain water for cooking and cleaning after her daughter broke out in a skin rash from contaminated groundwater. The Red Cross is constructing a new sanitation system on Maafushi Island in the Maldives that will clean the groundwater and reduce the risk of waterborne disease. (Photo Credit: Brian Hatchell/American Red Cross)
Aishath Liusha, a resident of the island of Maafushi in the central Maldives, saw the waves damage or destroy all 190 homes in her community. She and her family were lucky because their home wasn’t destroyed, but the contaminated groundwater left its mark.
“After I gave birth to my daughter in May, I began noticing that she was developing a skin rash,” said Liusha. “We soon realized it was because we were bathing her with groundwater. I immediately started bathing her in rain water.”
She went on to explain that the groundwater has become so contaminated that she will not even use it to water her plants or vegetable garden. According to Liusha, “there is always a bad smell in the air.”
The American Red Cross has begun working with the Irish Red Cross and the Federation to rebuild the entire sewer system on Maafushi to help its 1,300 residents.
A supplementary water supply system (desalination plant) on Thulusdhoo Island will bring safe water to 5,000 people. The American Red Cross, Irish Red Cross and the Hong Kong branch of Red Cross Society of China are funding four municipal sewage schemes to clean up the ground water and improve the shoreline environment on four Maldivian islands. (Photo Credit: Joe Lowry/ International Federation) Photo ID: IFRC P14500
Over the coming months, the Irish Red Cross and the Federation will install the main central system, while the American Red Cross will provide the residential water and sanitation systems, including septic tanks and drainage equipment. It will also set up a sanitation board to maintain and operate the new system and to educate local residents about proper hygiene practices.
Restaurant owner Hussain Kaub is excited because the new sewer system will ultimately improve the quality of the groundwater.
“The groundwater is still very bad,” said Kaub. “If the new sewer system means there is no leakage [of sewage] and the groundwater improves, we will be able to use the groundwater to clean and cook our food, which is healthier.”
The new sewer system also will benefit the coral reef and its teaming aquatic life by replacing the old system in which discharge pipes ran to the beach and into the ocean.
“Right now children are swimming in water right next to discharge pipes, which makes them vulnerable to illness and disease,” said Murushida Mannan, a community coordinator for the American Red Cross in the Maldives. “When we improve the sewer system, we will run the discharge pipes out past the reef; it will help clean up the water, restore reef life and improve the overall health of island residents.”
The project on Maafushi is part of broader plans by the American Red Cross to improve overall community health on six islands in the central and southern Maldives. By rehabilitating and rebuilding the sanitation system and educating people about proper hygiene practices, the American Red Cross aims to improve the well-being of 13,000 people over the next two to three years.
Brian Hatchell is a Press Officer with the American Red Cross Tsunami Recovery Program.