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.
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.
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.
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.
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.