BAA MAALHOS: THE PRICELESS VALUE OF WATER
By: UNDP MALDIVES, CONTRIBUTED TO COMMUNITY
Water is the essence of life but for the people of Baa Atoll Maalhos—an island community of some 600 people located at the heart of the UNESCO-protected Maldives’ biosphere reserve—it is a commodity in increasingly short supply.
The island of Maalhos, like the majority of the islands in Maldives, traditionally depended on ground water collected from the freshwater lens of the island as the primary source of both clean drinking water as well as water for other daily needs.
But for the people of this island, the days of collecting water from the miskithuvalhu (‘mosque well’) is long gone.
Rising demands for water due to an increase in population took the island’s toll on the limited freshwater supplies beneath the ground.
The absence of a proper sewerage system and an unhealthy and environmentally-unsound system of draining sewage into the ground through septic tanks further worsened the matter.
Aishath Zulfa, the 41-year-old former Vice President of the island’s Women’s Development Committee explained the severity of the case in Maalhos.
“Our ground water is contaminated. It is unusable, unsafe and unhealthy. It is only good to flush toilets.”
But this was not always the case…
There was a time when we would all go to the mosque well to collect water.But today, the ground water has a pungent odor and a murky white color”
“WE ARE STILL FORCED TO USE THE WATER AS WE DO NOT HAVE ANY OTHER ALTERNATIVE. WE USE AIR PUMPS TO AERATE THE WATER SO THAT WE CAN AT LEAST GET RID OF THE ODOR TO SOME EXTENT.”
With the Maldives being ground zero for the immediate effects of climate change, unpredictable weather and rainfall patterns put islanders even more at risk. Being surrounded by the ocean, salt water intrusion which has intensified over the years, too, inflicts further damage to the freshwater lens.
Realizing the deficit of groundwater, local authorities have worked hard to introduce rainwater collection tanks that can store up to 2,500 liters of water into almost all households. But these tanks are all still dependent on rainfall.
With the impacts of climate change severally experienced in the country, weather patterns are changing making it much harder for islanders to predict weather through traditional methods.
“We are no longer able to accurately predict how long the dry season will last. Even in the dry season, it may rain for the first month or two. The dry season now starts in December and it may not rain from February up until May. So the earliest time that we can start collecting water is in May” ABDULLA SHUJAU, PRESIDENT OF THE MAALHOS ISLAND COUNCIL.
Shortage of rain leaves the islanders with no choice, but to call for emergency help. In 2015 alone, 61 islands had requested emergency drinking water supplies from the National Disaster Management Center (NDMC).
“For the past three years, we have requested 30 tonnes of emergency water from the government each year during the dry season.”
Faced with a critical shortage of the most basic resource for life, the people of Maalhos are looking towards innovative solutions.
The Maalhos Awareness and Recreation Society (MARS), a local NGO, is partnering with the Island Council in pioneering the setup of an Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) Facility that will utilize desalinated seawater and harvested rainwater to meet growing demands.
What makes this initiative so significant is how the people of Maalhos turned the table in converting a burden into an opportunity. The IWRM Facility is the country’s first such community-led initiative that provides a bottom-up solution to the people.
With a small grant from the Tourism Adaptation Project—implemented jointly by UNDP and the Ministry of Tourism— the project, now in its final stages of coming into operation, will provide Maalhos with a clean source of water that is adequate to meet their daily needs.
“The facility is now complete. We are now only waiting for the approval from the government authorities before we could begin distributing water to the people,” — AHMED MUJTHABA, A SENIOR MARS MEMBER
The facility, Mujthaba believes, will produce more than enough water for the island community, as well as for prospective new businesses such as guesthouses and restaurants that are planned to be opened soon.
“But this is not the end. We still need a sewerage system. If we want to replenish our ground water supply, we must stop draining sewage into the ground,” Mujthaba explains.
For people of Maalhos, this initiative is just a battle won; not the war.
FOOTNOTES: Written by Mohamed Naahee & Adam Abdulla; Photography: Mohamed Naahee