Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

Maldives: Life After 100% Urban Sanitation
August 2007

By Cezar Tigno Web Writer Maldives’ urban centers have reached 100% sanitation coverage, says the multi-agency publication Asia Water Watch 2015. The country, it seems, has more than achieved the water supply and sanitation targets of the Millennium Development Goals. But water and sewerage utility staff are not resting on their laurels. What is keeping them on their toes? PERFECTION IN URBAN SANITATION Maldives should be laying back and relaxing, watching other countries struggle to achieve what it already had in 2002— 100% urban sanitation coverage. Yet the staff of the Malé Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) are not relaxing with coffee in one hand and feet propped up on desks. They are conscientiously monitoring city population growth and migration trends to preserve the perfection in urban sanitation coverage that they achieved. In the 1980s, Malé’s population tripled to around 60,000 from 20,000 in 1974, and has been steadily increasing since. “People from the “outer islands” began migrating to Malé to get their children into school, find jobs, and be nearer to what was once the only medical facility in the country,” Mohamed Rasheed, MWSC’s Marketing Manager, reasoned. The MWSC is now in-charge of the water supply and sewerage needs of Maldives’ three growing urban centers— Malé, Villingili, and HulhuMalé islands—that account for about 30% of the country’s population. It took over this responsibility from the Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority (MWSA) in 1995. With an initial customer base of 6,500 in 1996, the MWSC is now serving 19,638 households. “HulhuMalé is a new settlement that is fast becoming urbanized. We are keeping close watch of urban development to be ready to provide whatever additional services will be needed,” Rasheed said. FROM BEACH BURIALS TO SPAGHETTI PIPES Like any pre-toilet society, pre-toilet Maldives practiced open defecation. The country’s kilometric beaches offered the most natural place to relieve one’s self (or "burying mines" as the locals call it), without making any lasting damage to the environment. Maldives survived environmental exploitation for almost 2000 years. Defecation habits started changing on a mega-scale in the 1970s, when the “four gears toilet” was introduced in Malé. Using an iron bar or strong wooden stick, a hole was dug following the action of how one “changes gears” when driving a vehicle. The resulting hole became the defecation area and was usually near the shallow wells that supplied water to households. The more affluent constructed septic tanks, but sewage continued to penetrate the island’s water table, resulting in fecal contamination of groundwater. In the late 1980s, when cholera and shigellosis epidemics claimed several hundred lives, people realized how unhygienic practices can lead to groundwater pollution, and directly affect their health. Unfortunately, the government did not have the funds nor the expertise to lay a proper sewer network so people simply laid sewer pipes from their property to the sea. The result was a “spaghetti network” that lacked interception chambers and access for cleaning. They became clogged. Floods became common. And sewage spilled on roads every time it rained. Rasheed recollects, “Attending on sewer pipe repairs and cleaning the road of raw sewage became a 24-hour job.” Malé’s groundwater aquifer started to break down as sewage seeped in from the top while salt water penetrated the sides and bottom. The deterioration continued until 1988 when a formal sewer network was installed to help slow down the aquifer’s total collapse. FIBERGLASS, TELEMETRY, AND OTHER TECHNOLOGIES Malé’s sewer network, funded by Germanybased development bank KfW Bankengruppe, boasted of 50 kilometers of sewer pipes, roughly 1,000 access chambers, and 9 pump stations that collect sludge before pumping the water into the sea. New Look: An MWSC pumping station after rehabilitation The MWSA, which then managed the system, held an annual “flushing” to clean the sewers. But within two years, sand, debris, and hydrogen sulfide and methane gases corroded the network.

With no sufficient revenues to upgrade the network, MWSA again sought KfW Bankengruppe’s assistance. System infrastructures were reinforced with fiberglass lining and additional ventilation was provided. Rehabilitation was completed just after the MWSC took over the sewerage system. MWSC continued the system upgrade by installing additional vent pipes and industrial fans at pump stations, and introducing charcoal filtration systems. A new sewerflushing vehicle was also procured for the annual sewer “flushing.” In 2004, the MWSC pilot-tested a “telemetry system” in one pump station, which enabled MWSC to monitor and control its operations from the head office. With this new technology, capital costs were recovered by savings in operations and maintenance. Today, all of MWSC’s 9 pump stations are equipped with telemetry. Older sewer pumps were also replaced by the more sophisticated and energysaving Flygt N-Type pumps. HIGH TARIFFS AND OTHER CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS During MWSA’s time, sewer charges were paid according to the number of toilet seats in a household, starting with MRf15 and incrementally increasing as the toilets increased. Many large households contented themselves with only one toilet, and revenue was not enough to even carry out general system maintenance. When MWSC took over, separate sewer charges were dropped and a new tariff for both water and sanitation services were introduced. Malé residents welcomed the 24hour water supply and hassle-free sewage disposal services, and service fees were pegged on the amount of water each household consumed, which allowed customers to adjust consumption based on their incomes. While it is true that MWSC posts one of the highest water tariffs in Asia, this is neither without rhyme nor reason. MWSC's three-tiered tariff structure supports low-income users, while ensuring the company's commercial viability. Rasheed said, “The tariff introduced in 1996 was even stepped down on two occasions.” Yet, some residents still do not accept the high water supply and sanitation costs. They expect the tariff to be subsidized by the government, which is why the tariff issue is often raised in political debates. Some also say that queuing 5 to 10 minutes to pay the bill or waiting 7 days for a service connection is unacceptable. But Rasheed, who has been with the MWSC since 1995, believes, “Most of our customers are happy with the service we provide. We have never deviated from the standards we are supposed to maintain. And most people understand that we give our all to ensure that the water tariff remains lower than the initial tariff announced 12 years ago.”

NO LAUREL-RESTING ON MDG ACHIEVEMENTS Today, urban sanitation in Maldives is no longer a burden to the government, households, and the MWSC, which takes pride in its accomplishments in the past 12 years. But much still need to be done. Besides monitoring migrant influx in the urban centers, MWSC has decided to get involved in rural sanitation in the coming years. “We have made bids to the government to provide quality service in other islands similar to what we have accomplished in Malé. We are expecting the government to invest more in sanitation,” Rasheed said confidently. RELATED LINKS Photo Gallery Water Champion Mohamed Rasheed: Engaging the Private Sector to Invest in Water Maldives Water Action: Recovering the Full Cost of Delivering Clean and Safe Water

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in August 2007: http://www.adb.org/Water/Actions/mld/urban-sanitation.asp. The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.

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