WHEN GROUNDWATER TURNS DEADLY

(updated below)

The sad deaths of five young men in a well in Malé Fish Market on 3 March 2008 (Youth Day in the Maldives) shocked the people of the Maldives and have raised concerns about the safety of the use of groundwater in Malé. Those young men had been in the process of drilling boreholes in the well to increase the water level, because the well dried up easily. The well was used as the main source of water for cleaning fish and washing the floor of Fish Market in Malé.

fishmarket.jpg
It took 5 young men to die to stop using contaminated groundwater in the Fish Market.

According to Malé Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) abnormally high levels of hydrogen sulphide (a sewer gas) and carbon monoxide were found in the well while oxygen level was very low. Doctors at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) believed the men had died from inhalation of toxic gases. A doctor from the hospital told the media that the five men could have died from methane, a gas which could displace oxygen in confined spaces.

According to the State of the Environment Report 2002, the groundwater in Malé is not fit for washing and bathing purposes as Malé has the highest level of bacterial contamination of the groundwater table in the Maldives. The groundwater in Malé is very saline and the situation is further aggravated by the amount of chemicals in the water such as hydrogen sulphide and hydrocarbons.

“Hydrogen sulphide or sewer gas has also been a major threat to well water users in Malé resulting in acute poisoning of two and death of one person in 1997. Hydrogen sulphide makes the water stink and poses different health risks at different levels of exposure. Many household wells have shown elevated levels (0.5 to 3.5 ppm in water and above 100 ppm in the air) of hydrogen sulphide,” State of the Environment Report 2002 said.

A WHO report of 1995 further says that chemical analysis in Male’ shows that groundwater contains high amounts of nitrate and sulphates. High levels of ammonia were detected in a few wells (0.4-0.6 mg/l) indicating sewage pollution while raised pH levels (7.5 -8.0) confirmed the extent of contamination.

The people of the Maldives had traditionally been dependent on groundwater from shallow wells dug in the ground for drinking, bathing and washing purposes.

groundwater-desalinatedwater.jpg

In Malé hardly anyone uses the groundwater presently for drinking. However, several households in Malé depend on groundwater for washing clothes and dishes while some households still use groundwater for bathing as piped desalinated water is too expensive.

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.

sewage-vent.jpg
Children playing next to a vent of a sewage pumping station in a public park in Malé.

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.

Presently most of the wells built in Malé are inside a building, in a room or office, in the ground floor, covered with a lid on the opening, normally not air tight. If these wells have sewer gases accumulated, how safe is the use of such places without good ventilation?

As the country is still trying to figure out how the unfortunate deaths of five young men took place on Youth Day, the regulatory body of water and sanitation issues in the Maldives (Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority) remains silent on this issue.

Maldives: State of the Environment 2002 pages 36-40


UPDATE – 14 March 2008

Miadhu Daily, a newspaper owned by Mr. Ahmed Abdullah, Minister of Environment, Energy and Water, has published an article titled ” Fatal incident in a well in fish market: Water was tested at fish market area prior incident – MFDA” on 13 March 2008.

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.

MFDA, being completely aware of the presence of the high concentration hydrogen sulphide in the groundwater of Male’ for years, has so far not taken preventive measures, or issued a public health announcement to stop the use of groundwater in food outlets for washing dishes.

As some of our readers has suggested, Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority (MWSA) established in 1973 as regulatory body for water and sanitation in Maldives is presently not functioning properly, while MFDA have to carry out groundwater testing in the Fish Market on the request of Male’ Municipality. The whole case shows failure of respective regulatory bodies.

21 Comments »

  1. Dr Niyaf said,

    March 10, 2008 @ 4:45 am

    Thanks for this very informative article. Sewage contaminated drinking water is known to be one of the causes of diarrhoeal epidemic; much similar to the epidemics we see as an annual occurrence in Male’. Using ground water for bathing or washing fruits, vegetables and table ware could be extremely dangerous in this situation.

    I wonder if you, MFDA or MWSA would be willing to publish (online or in print) raw data of the MWSA piped desalinated water analysis? Just how safe is MWSA desalinated water for drinking as it is? I am suspicious (for no obvious reason) and boil the water well before using for drinking.

  2. Fenfulhangi said,

    March 10, 2008 @ 7:07 am

    Well the documents are on for ppl to go and ask fo it..they cant hold it in…we can take them to court if they refuse as its a national health issue….also the CO carbon monoxide doesnt occur naturally in the sewer or ground it has to be produced via a combustion engine…am i wrong?….

  3. Ibrahim said,

    March 10, 2008 @ 10:01 am

    When the regulatory body of water and sanitation issues in the Maldives (Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority) remains silent on this issue. What we all can do is only speculate.

    I think manhole near Fish Market is leaking into the groundwater.When these young people boreholed the well, accumulated deadly gas (hydrogen sulphide or sewer gas, chlorine and fish blood etc ) suddenly burst into the well. It is very ordinary work to bore hole well, and no special safety is used to borehole well in the Maldives. How could these young people know that this to be so deadly, afterall this is not a sewage manhole. Five deaths is a big figure to the Maldives. In order to prevent future disasters such as this, an Independent Commission must be set up to investigate the unfortunate deaths of 5 young people.

  4. sewage monitor said,

    March 11, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    Male’ Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) does not provide any sewage treatment facilities. Through the pumping stations effluent is pumped into the sea. The discharged effluent has very high levels of BOD and COD. At the pumping station the sewage decomposes. In case the pump station is full, raw sewage is discharged into the sea. Without any sewage treatment, hydrogen sulphide is formed and because of the highly corrosive nature of hydrogen sulphide it corrodes the catch pits in households and effluent is discharged into ground. The same thing happens in manholes and pumping stations. In a country like Maldives, with loose sand, and water lens close to the surface, this causes groundwater contamination easily. The people living near pumping stations are affected by hydrogen sulphide. For example, residents living near pumping station 4 near IGMH have complained on several occasions about foul smell from hydrogen sulphide.

    MWSC is a 100% (or more than that) profit making company. Why isn’t the regulatory body Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority (MWSA) making it compulsory for MWSC to have a sewage treatment plant? Why is such an environmental hazard allowed in the fragile environment of the Maldives?
    http://www.mwsc.com.mv/environment_society/environment_society.shtml
    Why are catch pits made from corrosive cement instead of materials such as PVC or high density polythene? Why aren’t the pumping stations constructed with sulphur resistant cement and protected with a PVC coating? For a new sewer connection, a household has to pay more than Rf2,000 to MWSC.
    http://www.mwsc.com.mv/sales_services/waste_water_services.shtml
    But with this high price, MWSC is not actually providing a real sewage management solution. Having a sewage treatment plant is an absolutely necessary thing because there will be less likelihood of toxic gas formation.

  5. nasheed colonel said,

    March 11, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    this is sad reality. we must take action immediately

  6. saleem said,

    March 11, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    I wonder how much reserve water MWSC has. Can they provide water for Male’ for more than 24 hours in an emergency? I am also concerned about the depletion of freshwater lens in islands, and contamination because there will be no freshwater reserve in the islands. The tsunami showed how vulnerable people can be in an emergency. Many islands were left without freshwater because the tsunami increased salinity of groundwater in several islands. Is there a national level plan for addressing a water shortage in case of an emergency?

  7. futtaru faraaiy said,

    March 11, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    In some islands where sewage systems are funded by Red Cross or WHO, treatment plants are installed. However, in many islands sewage systems are designed without treatment plants. Learning from the experience of Male’, it is important to have sewage treatment plants. Such plants are not found either in Hulhumale’ or Villingili. MWSC should be held accountable for gross negligence and harm to our environment and for causing groundwater contamination. It is not just enough to blame the five deceased young men for not wearing gas masks. When regulations make it compulsory for each tourist resort in the Maldives to have sewage treatment plants, why aren’t there similar regulations for inhabited islands? All those suffering because of the negligence of MWSC and MWSA should file lawsuits against the company and the regulatory body. It is outrageous that MWSC is contributing to pollution and contamination of water. If tobacco companies can be sued for causing cancer, MWSC can and should be sued for causing environmental health hazards. It is pathetic that they have placed all those sewage vents in public parks where people take children to play.

  8. Oi Iya Vattalau said,

    March 11, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

    Interesting comments. i too agree that MWSA and MWSC should take responsibility of the 5 sudden deaths at fish market well. as others mentioned in their comments they were working on groundwater well, not on cleaning a sewer manhole or not working on a mine field. MWSC,s Mr.Rasheed (marketing manager) just after the incident gave interview to media saying that the cause of the death was due to the presence of toxic gases. wonder he knows whether the source of the gases are from his sewerage system. he was more stressing to use quality water to wash fish, what he refers to quality water is to use water from his piped water.if MWSC water is used for fish cutting we may have to double cost. its sad a public company squeezing money from common people for billing for drinking water at poor quality, still insisting to use their water for fish washing. your information in 2006 alone the net profit of MWSC was RF54 million, imaging how much they are charging for a basic need (drinking water).

  9. A_Raha said,

    March 11, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

    Does any body know the sewer contamination around Male’ is 500-800 times higer than European Standard. How many of your friends have admited in IGMH or ADK just because swimming around Male’(swimming Areas). I am sure Public Heath and Some other Corresponding agencies have this information.

  10. aharen said,

    March 11, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

    having said all above by you i agree. hence is there any solution? this place is overcrowded too fine that there is no escape from the chemical and gases.
    we proudly say that our country consists of some 1200 islands. is this the only island all the 80000 people living in Male’ have to live? why not consider living on the islands, what’s there to loose? the toxic and chemical we get from Male’? the Almighty Allah created lands for humans and not to get on top of each other though to spread on the lands. Once you leave the rights and goods given by Allah and follow the so called civilization of the west you will get mingled in all types of bad fitna and worse to come. think and wonder decide while you have time to do so.

  11. Oi Iya Vattalau said,

    March 12, 2008 @ 5:17 am

    Since MWSA formed in 1973, till today there is no regulation that they can regulate MWSC, since MWSC generate big revenue to government MWSA keep quite. MWSA cannot perform its mandated tasks.MWSA need to be independent and free from influence. MWSA needs to be away from MEEW, where Environment Minister puts his hand into MWSA,s mandate.

    Its high time to watch whether MWSA is performing their mandate on to the number of sewerage projects being implemented,in pipeline, in design stage on our poor islands. otherwise the assistance we get from donors and on loans going to be a waste.

    we have recently learned on papers that the sewerage system built in Isdhoo Kalaidhoo under Japaneses assiatance went into trouble as it isn’t functioning. later we heard island chief saying that it was a pilot project.

    It sounds that everything is done by MEEW, and MWSA acts as a symbolic institute.

  12. Advisor said,

    March 12, 2008 @ 7:12 am

    If MWSC cannot provide water at an affordable rate to the public, why not atleast supply salt water from the sea? This will solve many problems like house holders wouldn’t need to install motors every month and can get rid of ammonia smell that comes from the toilet due to contaminated well water. It will also save the money for building those wells too. Isn’t it?

  13. narudhama nizam said,

    March 12, 2008 @ 7:19 am

    Does MWSA has the capacity to monitor all such issues? I heard that MWSA is a very much politicised body. Do they have qualified people? Why did MWSC give interviews to media concerning the 5 deaths when MWSA did not say anything? Why did all qualified people in MWSA leave sometime back? Why are sewerage projects carried out by MEEW using donor aid in islands not completed on time?

    http://www.haveeru.com.mv/?page=details&id=65084

  14. Short Term Consultant for Maldives said,

    March 12, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    This is a national tragedy isn’t it ! we have to bring the immediate responsible authority to justice . It is our right, as a citizens to know the quality of ground water of maldives including islands. Good work! keep it up and try to Make MWSA accountable on this tragedy . May God Be With all of you .

  15. Musthafa geh Hiyani said,

    March 12, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

    How come we address all these issues without even knowing that there is water and sanitation regulator in Maldives called Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority (MWSA) and a Water and Sanitation Utility Company formed to provide water and sanitation services to the island of Male’ called Male’ Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC).

    The government of Maldives has established Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority (MWSA) in 1973 .it is one of the oldest technical institutions in the Maldives and also in the region. MWSA has done lots of work and produced lots of capable well trained Maldivians in the area of water and sanitation during the past 35 years. (But not during the last 6-8 years where a Monster has lead the office during that period). Unfortunately all of them have left the institution mainly due to forceful powers of previous health Minister and later because of unprofessional Iron Lady who moved there with powers from her husband.

    Although MWSA has done lots of assessments and activities were planned, the work and was not materialized since the government has not fulfilled its obligations in providing funding for improving the sector. Even the professionals were removed from office. The case of Mr. Farooq Mohammed Hassan is well known to all, as he has tried to improve the water sector and regulate the Male’ Water and Sewage Company (MWSC). Mr. Farooq was later ended and moved at Ministry of Education. He has tried to strengthen the Institution and improve the sector without politicizing his work. There was a very good team who has worked there and left mainly because of the Monster lady who has damaged the whole institution, experts like Ahmed Zahid, Abdul Aleem, Hussain Shaheed, Mohammed Musthafa, Hassan Shaah, Mohammed Nihaam, ….…etc

    Under government’s reform agenda, and the cabinet changes of July 2005, the president has decided to strengthen MWSA and increase its regulatory function, as it will be run by a governing board not to be ruled by the Minister but unfortunately this has not happened to date.

    MWSA is a non functional institution now, and there are no capable technical people there anymore. There are no engineers, no water quality experts, no hydrologists, no surveyors, no legal experts, and no limnologists, NO NOTHING!

    The institution is run by a PhD holder in Geography, who has damaged the whole environment sector especially ERC. This can be confirmed by contacting Mr. Amjad Abdulla, Executive Director of Environment Ministry. He has thrown 4 staffs and including an MPH holder since he (Dr) has joined MWSA during mid 2007. In addition there is traditional medicine practitioner; few katheebs and a vocalist who are running the institution now?

    So imagine how these issues can be addressed by the regulator (MWSA), instead we have seen Marketing Manager of MWSC speaks about all the issues on business mind promoting his companies water while regulator is still sleeping same time ?????

    There are lots of unanswered questions? How come male’ municipally allow the drain of waste water of fish market on to the ground? Why ground water is used from nearby by drainage site is used at Fish Market for cleaning the fish? Why wells of fish market are constructed without approval of MWSA? Why borehole is drilled without approval of MWSA? Why MWSA didn’t prepare borehole and drainage guidelines? Why Ministry of Health and Ministry of Employment didn’t prepare Occupation Health and Safety Protocols? Why Ahmed Abdullah didn’t allow a qualified water expert to run MWSA? Why MWSA’s Governing Board is not formed? Why MWSC speaks on behalf of MWSA?Why no water Act is formed in Maldives WHY? WHY?

    GOD BLESS MALDIVES AND MALDIVIAN WATER SECTOR.

  16. Mohammed Zawid Naseem said,

    March 13, 2008 @ 12:07 am

    Why is it that we always need a tragedy like this to happen in Maldives for stimulating our civic sense? Frustrations, anguish, blame and allegations are not going to help the families of those people who lost their valuable life in this unfortunate incident. Let God Almighty bestow on their family the patience to overcome this.

    Talking about the issue of noxious gases in the ground water of Maldives’ various islands, I remembered about Sh-Makhandhodhoo (excuse my spelling if it is wrong), where the entire population had to be resettled at another uninhabited island Sh-Milandhoo (isn’t it!!!).

    This specific problem needs much deeper effort not only on the part of the Government (which is very easily targeted for blaming) but also by the people. Maintenance of proper sewer system and disposal of organic wastes at safer sites could do a lot of benefit. The problem in Male’ city is definitely alarming, which is more so due to the soaring population, which like the unprecedented climate change effects, has rendered most of the city’s plans vague, like elsewhere around the world. The sewer system of Male’ (i) definitely needs a evaluation with respect to its efficiency and performance and (ii) connected to a either active sludge (very old technologically) or the new sequential batch reactor (SBR) unit which could be housed in some place within Male’ city (it’s not a very big unit though) to prevent the organic wastes from finding their way back to the ground water from the disposal sites. This will involve cost, but can prevent the sufferings of people to a very large extent. The same can be designed for densely populated islands all around Maldives. The products from such waste processing plants, the sludge and waste water, could be used for farming and hydroponics which is turning a new page in Maldives.

    The people could also help either by reducing direct disposal of organic wastes, like fish wastes and other domestic wastes or by disposing them away from inhabited islands, like in a channel or so. The people need to practice biogas generation from fish and organic waste, which could be taken at a community level rather than individually, so that they can generate some biogas and also reduce the impact of organic waste around their environment.

    At Bluepeace, we can start a public awareness program regarding this also.

  17. futtaru faraaiy said,

    March 16, 2008 @ 5:54 am

    MFDA has said again that they gave warnings to Male’ Municipality in January that the groundwater used to clean fish at Fish Market is contaminated.
    http://www.haveeru.com.mv/?page=details&id=65490

    In the Haveeru report of 16 March MFDA said that it found high levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulphide in the water in a test carried out in January.

    What we see is a blame game now. Can MFDA escape from accountability just because they informed Male’ Municipality prior to the accident? What did Male’ Municipality do to rectify the problem? Why aren’t the public informed of such tests and reports when the public ultimately suffer from the problems?

    Just like the Ameeneege case we are seeing government authorities trying to blame other government departments.

    Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority, the regulatory body for water and sanitation issues, has so far said nothing. It is as if 5 people didn’t die in that well from toxic gases. Doesn’t MWSA know that silence is not golden anymore?

    Which parliament member has the courage to take these issues in the parliament? Or are our MPs still so busy with their own business interests since most Maldivian MPs are fat rich capitalist businessmen.

  18. Ali said,

    March 18, 2008 @ 3:59 am

    Maldives should be laying back and relaxing, watching other countries struggle to achieve what it already had in 2002—100% urban sanitation coverage. Maldives’ urban centers —Malé, Villingili, and Hulhumalé islands—have reached 100% sanitation coverage,” according to the the multi-agency publication Asia Water Watch 2015.
    http://www.adb.org/Water/Actions/mld/urban-sanitation.asp

    When Malé urban centre has 100% sanitation coverage, what’s surprising is that the groundwater of Malé contains high concentration of toxic gases such as hydrogen sulphide (sewer gas) methane and ammonium mainly as sewage leaks because of defective manhole housing .

    According to Moosa Anwar, Director General at the Maldives Food and Drug Authority (MFDA) the test carried out by the authority in January 2008 in the Fish Market area, indicated presence of “considerable amounts of hydrogen sulphide and ammonium in that area”. The test further indicated Malé groundwater has been contaminated with “animal and human sewage”.
    http://www.haveeru.com.mv/?page=details&id=65499&category=cTrOPir

    In the TVM evening news on March 3, Mohamed Rasheed, MWSC’s Marketing Manager said the Fish Market area was a reclaimed area with garbage and due to that abnormally high levels of ‘hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide” were found in the well.
    http://www.minivannews.com/news/news.php?id=4196

    However, an interview to the Minivan News on 16 march 2008 he says “This [land] was reclaimed some forty odd years before,” explained Mohamed Rasheed, engineering manager at the MWSC. Previously “it was a shallow lagoon, filled with weed…this must have decomposed.” This time according to Rasheed, gases found does not include carbon monoxide but ” hydrogen sulphide and methane”.
    http://www.minivannews.com/news/news.php?id=4244

    What I do not understand is the role of MWSC’s Marketing Manager on this issue, why all this spinning by Mohamed Rasheed, MWSC’s Marketing Manager. It looks very fishy. When no sewage is sink into the ground of Male’…why on earth, groundwater is contaminated with “animal and human sewage” and sewer gas….MWSC has to answer this to public and to the families of those who have sadly died in the fish market well.

  19. Oi Iya Vattalau said,

    March 18, 2008 @ 5:46 am

    I call to the to the family of 5 deaths bring MWSA, Municipality, MFDA and MWSC to court. be serious,

  20. Global Voices Online » Maldives: Living with contaminated groundwater said,

    March 23, 2008 @ 2:51 am

    [...] 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 [...]

  21. BLUEPEACE blog » USING WATER POSITIVELY FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT said,

    March 22, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    [...] had in the past raised the issue of groundwater contamination, caused in most cases because of untreated sewage seeping into the groundwater. This is a problem [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment