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Monday, December 8, 2014

Water, Water

Island Malé and capital city of Maldives

There's a bit of a water crisis in the Maldives (or is it just Maldives? My conditioning prevents me from leaving out the the.) The population outstripped the islands' ability to provide fresh water some time ago, so they are dependent on desalination plants. A fire in an electrical control panel in a relatively large desalination plant in the capital city/island of Malé has shut it down.

Malé is about halfway up the eastern chain of islands. At this scale it occupies one pixel on your screen. The 'British Indian Ocean Territory' down at the bottom center is just a fancy name for Diego Garcia, a hot spot on every sailor's tour of duty. And look! There's Arthur C. Clarke's house, 15 pixels South of Sri.

My paraphrase of the Wikipedia article on the place gives us the basics:
Maldives is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, consisting of a double chain of twenty-six atolls, oriented north-south. The chain starts about 250 miles southwest of the Southern tip of India and extends 500 miles south. Most of the atolls are composed of a ring of small islands. There are roughly 1200 islands, only 200 of which are populated. The total population is something greater than 300,000.  With an average ground level elevation of 5 feet above sea level, it is the planet's lowest country. It is also the country with the lowest natural highest point in the world at 8 feet.
Highest point is 8 feet?!?! How is it that this place still exists? I would have thought that everything would have been swept away the last time a typhoon blew through. Obviously I'm missing something, but it's going to have to wait for another day. I've got enough on my plate right now.

The Maldives cover about 35,000 square miles of ocean. If it was land it would be about the same size as Indiana, South Carolina or Maine. Put all the islands together and the actual land area would only be 115 square miles, which is slightly smaller than Larry Ellison's Pineapple Island.

My first hearing of this crisis left me wondering WTF? An electrical fire shut down the water? What kind of desalination plant do they have? I mean any boy scout knows you can get enough fresh water to survive with a sheet of plastic by rigging up a solar still. Works even in the Sahara (maybe. I'm not going to bet on that.) Wikipedia disabuses me of that notion:

Solar Stills
In the direct method, a solar collector is coupled with a distilling mechanism and the process is carried out in one simple cycle. . . . Water production by direct method solar distillation is proportional to the area of the solar surface and incidence angle and has an average estimated value of 3-4L/m2/d. Because of this proportionality and the relatively high cost of property and material for construction direct method distillation tends to favor plants with production capacities less than 200m3/d. - Wikipedia
200m3 (200 cubic meters) is about 50,000 gallons. Okay, land is kind of at a premium in Malé (see picture at top), and while 50,000 gallons a day might enable the population (roughly 100,000 people) to survive in a temperate climate, Malé is on the equator. I think you might want a bit more.

Still, with water being necessary and scarce, you'd think they'd want some kind of backup plan that didn't require electricity. Like maybe a water tower and a battery of hand operated pumps. I dunno though, maybe anything that sticks up would get blown away in the next typhoon. Or maybe pumps are too sophisticated. Maybe what they need is a water tower with a set of stairs so people can curry buckets up of water to the top. After all, the electricity isn't doing any magic, all it's doing is running the pumps. Electric pumps might be more economical from a business perspective, but if you are running out of drinking water and it's a hundred degrees outside I think you might be persuaded to man the pump for a bit, especially if that is the only way to get a drink.


India and China have been shipping water there by the ton, but Malé needs at least a thousand tons a day (a cubic meter weighs a ton). Saudi Arabia and India have pledged a chunk of money to get the water supply fixed. It's a chunk, but it's only a fraction of what they need. Being the geeky kind of guy I am, I'm wondering why the electrician didn't just go in and replace the burnt up wires, but then I realized that even if that got it going, what they really want is a reliable machine that doesn't require any fiddling. Their big business is tourism, not engineering. Besides, it's kind of like a military campaign, or a movie production - everything has to be shipped in from somewhere else, including all the support staff and supplies for the people who are doing actual work. Kind of like a pyramid scheme. You only need one guy to turn on the switch on the new plant, but getting the new plant there and installed, well, that's going to take a small army, and as we all know, armies are expensive.

Sun.MV has a live blog on the Malé water crisis. It's kind of a cool format. What we haven't heard is anything from Hitachi, who built and run the Malé's desalination plan, though I might be the only person on the planet who knows this (puffy mcpuffery speaking).

On the plus side, I found a very cool back room tour of the Hyatt in Malé, and an English company that is building Seawater Greenhouses in Arabia.


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