Maldives: Living with contaminated groundwater

As the world observed World Water Day on March 22, issues concerning sanitation and access to safe water were discussed and debated in the media. This year’s theme for WWD is sanitation as 2008 is the International Year of Sanitation.

Maldivian bloggers have brought water and sanitation issues to the forefront of discussion in the country. It has emerged that the groundwater in several islands of the Maldives is contaminated with sewage.

It began with the death of 5 young people in a water well on March 3. They were part of a construction team working to bore a hole in the well when toxic gases caused the death. When there was no news of two persons, another person climbed in for rescue, and this cycle repeated till five people were in the well. The well was used to supply water for the Fish Market in the capital Male’.

When the accident took place, the eyewitnesses alerted Maldives Police Service. However, in such emergencies it is the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) which has to be alerted. The hospital ambulance which arrived did not have paramedics as in the Maldives ambulances are no more than simple vans which carry patients in stretchers. The MNDF rescuers who arrived to the scene did not give CPR to the victims.

The Maldives Medical Watch blog examines the failures of emergency services to respond to this accident and gives recommendations on improving the medical rescue services.

We asked some of our friends about who they would contact in a similar event. The answers we got were not surprising. Most of them said that they would contact MPS or IGMH. The MNDF Fire and Rescue services were mentioned by only one of the 25 people we contacted. This maybe a biased assessment but this highlights one issue. The general public have not been made aware of what emergency service they need to contact in which kind of incident.

This brings us to our argument for the need for a common Emergency Services. Why can't we organize an emergency response service that has teams from various fields (Fire, Rescue, Police, Medical Services) that could be contacted by calling an umbrella Emergency Service?

International practice is to have a single body responsible for Emergency services. They will be comprised of the different teams that will be mobilized to respond to an event. It would them be easier for the common people to know which number to call in an emergency. Much like the 911 service we see on Reality TV.

We also note that the information conveyed at the time of calling the rescue service is vital. If details were not provided by the caller, the person receiving the call should have the sense to keep him or her online and to gather more information till the rescue services could reach the site.

Another issue that has been raised is how unprepared workers are when they are at high risk work. With inadequate safety regulations and laws to make it mandatory for employers to provide safe working environments, many workers in the Maldives are facing work-related risks while accidents at work are common.

The blogger Hamdun examines the issues concerning work safety in the Maldives.

The state in any country bears the burden of legislating and implementing laws to serve and protect its citizens. Legislating Rules and Regulations on workplace safety standards also falls on the government’s shoulder in making work sites safe for the people who work in them and also the general public from those work sites. It is also the government’s responsibility to monitor the workplaces to ensure the state of the workplaces are with the workplace safety standards, and penalise those who fail to adhere to it.

Poor workplace safety Standards and poor monitoring of the standards is equal to inviting tragedy with open arms. The Bopal tragedy in India serves the best example of this. The state of Madhya Pradesh was aware of the poor workplace safety observed in Bopal plant but decided to ignore the issue on the ground that it provided much needed employment and income for the locals. Then, on the night of 3 December 1984 tragedy struck, when a reaction in one of the storage tanks resulted in leaking more than 40 tones of Methyl Isocynate (MIC) gas into the air killing 3800 people instantly and more than 30000 people to date. Should the Maldives wait on for proper workplace safety standards till we experience a similar tragedy? Obviously no, if a Workplace Safety Standard means saving a single life it is definitely worth it. Thus, it is time for the government to introduce tighter Workplace Safety Standards and develop a monitoring mechanism to ensure that the standards are well observed within worksites and no more lives are lost to poor safety conditions.

It was the work safety angle that the mainstream media picked up immediately after the deaths of the five people. However, Bluepeace blog examined the reasons as to why toxic gases were built up in the well and came up with a shocking conclusion: the groundwater in Male’ is contaminated with sewage. Male’ Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) providing sewerage services has built a sewerage system which discharges effluent without any treatment.

Unlike other inhabited islands in the Maldives hardly any household in Malé sink effluent (sewage and waste water) into the ground using septic tanks. Household effluent is collected in catch pits and transferred to MWSC’s Central Sewage System. If this is the case, why is the groundwater in Malé contaminated with sewage? For more than a decade, sewage manholes have been causing sewage infiltration into groundwater because of defective manhole housing. In addition, the poor design and construction of catch pits used in households have lead to further infiltration of sewage into groundwater. In order to reduce the pressure from sewer gases in manholes and thus reduce infiltration, MWSC erected sewage vents in Malé, some of them located in public parks.

The use of septic tanks and the primitive sewage systems in the rest of the country causes equally alarming problems. Sinking of effluent into the ground has caused contamination of groundwater in several islands of the Maldives. Unlike Malé, in the other islands the people use groundwater for washing clothes, dishes and for bathing, as piped desalinated water is not available. When rainwater is depleted, during dry spells, the people drink groundwater in several islands. In fact, 25% of the people of the Maldives depend on groundwater for drinking according to State of the Environment Report 2002.

After the issue was raised by Bluepeace blog, mainstream media picked on the issue and newspapers started running articles on it. Another interesting revelation that came in the wake of this debate is that Maldives Food and Drug Authority (MFDA) was aware that contaminated water was used to clean fish at the Fish Market but did not intervene to stop it, as Bluepeace blog reports.

According to Miadhu, the Maldives Food and Drug Authority (MFDA), which has been established in 2006 to centralise the setting of standards relating to food and drugs in Maldives, has carried out a groundwater testing in the Fish Market area in January 2008. The tests carried out by the MFDA indicated presence of “considerable amounts of hydrogen sulphide and ammonium in that area”.

What is amazing to learn is that even the MFDA, while being scientifically aware of the high concentration of deadly gases in the groundwater of Male’, much prior to the deaths on Youth Day, had failed to take measures to stop the use of contaminated water to wash fish and the Fish Market’s floors.

After the tragic death of five young men on Youth Day in the Maldives, the various government agencies are involved in a game of pointing fingers and blaming one another. Meanwhile the public has been made more aware of water and sanitation issues through blogs and other media outlets. An increasing number of people have stopped buying fish from the Fish Market although contaminated water is no longer used to clean the fish. However, Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority (MWSA), the regulatory body on water and sanitation, has so far not responded to the circumstances surrounding the recent deaths, and have not issued any statement. With irresponsible authorities in charge, a large number of Maldivians live in islands with contaminated groundwater, leaking toxic gases, and sewerage systems discharging untreated effluent.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in his message on World Water Day, the biggest culprit in failure to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015 is the lack of political will.


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