USAID supports sustainable water supply in the Maldives

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LHAVIYANI ATOLL, MALDIVES, 2008-06-30 - By mobilizing the community to own and manage a private drinking water business, USAID has raised peoples' awareness of water scarcity and helped promote sustainable water use.

The Republic of Maldives is an island nation consisting of a chain of 1,190 small low-lying coral islands grouped into 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean. Of these islands, 198 are inhabited and an additional 80 have tourist resorts. The islands' ecosystems are among the most vulnerable in the world, and safe drinking water is quickly becoming the country's most sought after resource.

Maldives has a narrow economic base that relies on two key sectors-tourism and fisheries. The gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is $4,798 (in purchasing power parity). Despite tremendous progress, a large proportion of the population remains poor, primarily due to regional disparities in living conditions related to the remoteness of islands and the lack of infrastructure and social services on the outer islands.

The devastating Asian tsunami in December 2004 affected most of the countries around the Indian Ocean, including Maldives. Even though there were no deaths directly associated with the tsunami, damage caused to the islands' infrastructure and vulnerable ecosystems was significant. Although post-tsunami rehabilitation needs in Maldives are many - ranging from shelter, to livelihoods, to critical infrastructure, and disaster risk management - one of the largest and most underserved needs was the reconstruction of basic water supply and sanitation infrastructure.

On the outer islands, water is supplied entirely by wells and rainwater tanks, with the latter being the principal source of drinking water. Groundwater resources are at risk of bacterial contamination caused by leakage and pollution from damaged sewer systems. The 2004 tsunami worsened the situation. While several donors are working to improve water supply and sanitation infrastructure, the overall needs are greater than the available financial and technical resources of the Maldivian Government. Much needed equipment has been provided by donors, but in many locations they remain uninstalled and thus inoperable.

In response to requests from the Maldivian Government, USAID and the U.S. Department of State have provided $1.9 million to address water and sanitation needs. This is in addition to the Department of State's initial tsunami relief and reconstruction grant of $8.65 million to the Government's Tsunami Relief and Reconstruction Fund. Through the new grant, USAID launched a water project on the Lhaviyani atoll, which included a combination of direct water service provision and community mobilization, as well as institutional strengthening and capacity-building for the Maldivian Ministry of Environment, Energy and Water.

Lhaviyani atoll is situated about 140 km north of the capital Male and has seven inhabited islands. Naifaru and Hinnavaru islands are the most populated, with over 4,500 inhabitants on each island. Both island communities have been provided with electricity by the state and water is free. Because water is available at no cost, instilling a sense of cost consciousness and the need for long term sustainability remains a challenge. USAID met this challenge by supporting the formation of Island Water Committees (IWC) on the two islands and providing technical assistance to prepare a business plan for each of the water facilities. The business plans outline how much water each island community needs to generate to cover their needs, how much a unit should cost and what the expected sale price for domestic and commercial use should be.

USAID and its contractors worked with the Ministry of Energy, Environment and Water, the Lhaviyani atoll office, the island offices and the island development committees on every aspect of the program. Reaching consensus is key to creating a sense of ownership among the community. Together, they were able to finalize the location of the water plant and public water distribution points, as well as the route for the water piping. The completed facilities were handed over to the Island Development Committees on February 18, 2008.

Since the start up of water production in February 2008, the Naifaru Island Water Committee has been producing over 100,000 liters per month and is making a net profit of MRF 9,000.00 (1 US$ = 12.75 MRF). Naifaru is the atoll capital, and its hospital is a regional hospital, meaning demand for water is higher than elsewhere. The Hinnavaru Island Water Committee on the other hand has only produced about 10,000 liters per month, leading to a net loss of MRF 3,000.00.

Both Island Water Committees have realized that the key to the project's financial sustainability is increased consumption. To this end, the two committees are now planning to install metered house connections for individual households, which will pay an initial fee to cover installation costs. This approach is sure to increase household drinking water consumption and thereby promote the financial sustainability of the water treatment facilities.

In addition, USAID has supported a health awareness campaign implemented by the Naifaru Hospital, which promotes community hygiene and water conservation among the population. To ensure the effective dissemination of this information, USAID has provided media equipment to Naifaru Hospital and island schools.

At a lessons learned workshop held towards the end of the project in May, Minister of Energy and Water Ahmed Abdulla reminded everyone of the vulnerabilities all Maldivian's face. While pointing out that water will become the most sought after resource in Maldives in the future, he stressed that continued action is needed to ensure sustainable water systems are introduced across the country and he thanked USAID for helping his country move towards more sustainable water use.

The completion of these USAID tsunami activities in Maldives now marks the successful completion of all of its tsunami reconstruction activities there.