A few hours of heavy rain in Malé City on Monday morning inundated streets, snarled traffic, flooded the main hospital and caused a roof to cave in at a primary school, prompting concern over the island city’s vulnerability to and lack of preparedness for extreme weather.
The showers, which lasted just over two hours, flooded the carnival area on Malé’s northeastern waterfront, just days after the army pumped out a foot of water deposited by tidal swells there.
Water leaked through the roofs at the state owned Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) and swamped its walkways and wards, in the worst flooding the hospital has seen in years. The IGMH has blamed the severity of flooding on ongoing construction.
Sections on some streets in Maafannu ward on the southwest were under a foot of water. The area, at a lower elevation than the rest of the city, is prone to frequent floods. Ameenee Magu, the city’s southern thoroughfare, was inaccessible to traffic for a time.
“It’s a mess. We need an urgent solution. There are three schools and a hospital in Maafannu. Fortunately, households have not suffered too much damage, because they pile up sandbags or houses are built at a higher elevation,” said Shamau Shareef, a Malé City councilor.
Environmentalists have called on the government to urgently install proper drainage and flood prevention systems, noting that the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events will only increase with climate change.
Similar to other islands in the Maldives, Malé is barely one meter above sea level. One third of the Maldives’ 350,000 population lives here. Critical infrastructure including hospitals, schools, and Malé’s water and electricity plants are located in flood prone areas.
Malé is protected by a wall of concrete tetrapods. The US$60million wall was built on Japanese grant after tidal swells inundated the city in 1988. The cost of damage was estimated at US$6million. Flooding also led to a cholera outbreak.
The sea wall also prevented the destruction of part of the city in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. It is no longer enough to protect the city.
“Malé City is only prepared for disasters in so far as all the state’s institutions are located here. In the event of a disaster, the army and the police and government offices are on hand to respond,” said Mohamed Aslam, the former minister of environment.
The response remains ad-hoc. Soldiers are called in to set up pumps to remove floodwater, but long-term planning is required, he said. Malé’s roads need to be leveled and storm water pumps need to be set up immediately.
“Flooding in Malé is common. It has been going on for years. We know where it is happening, and why. Major-work will be needed to address the issue,” he said.
Aisha Niyaz, a climate change activist, noted flooding brings with it health risks, such as the spread of gastroenteritis and skin diseases. Rain and floodwater, if left to stagnate, can increase mosquito breeding and lead to dengue outbreaks, she noted.
Some 382 cases of dengue were reported in Malé this year. Schools were closed for nearly a month in July to prevent the spread of dengue.
Many fear the government’s stripping of the powers of the opposition-dominated Malé City Council has hampered much-needed urban planning in Malé. The council has long complained over the government’s failure to allocate funds and resources to improve services in Malé City.
President Abdulla Yameen has now transferred most of the council’s functions to the housing ministry. It all began in October last year with the cabinet’s decision to remove the council’s jurisdiction over Malé’s streets after it attempted to replant Areca Palms which had been chopped down by mysterious masked men.
At the time, the council in association with Malé Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC), was in the middle of installing four storm water pumps, councilor Shamau said. At least 13 more are needed.
The MWSC has announced that an additional five pumps will be installed by the end of the year.
Housing Minister Dr Mohamed Muizz has levelled blamed at the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) for the state of Malé’s streets.
“Malé’s roads were destroyed during the MDP administration. The City Council ruined Malé’s streets. This government is working on repairing the streets. Malé City’s storm water drains, pavement bricks were all a mess, not suitable for traffic, not suitable for pedestrians. We will repair all of that,” he told the parliament on August 12.
Malé’s streets were paved in the mid 90s, but are frequently dug up to lay utility pipes and cables.
The ministry is planning to pave Malé’s narrow streets with asphalt and level Ameenee Magu. It has already hired a foreign consultant, he said.
Muizz told newspaper Haveeru last week that a Chinese company has been contracted to redesign Malé’s streets. Details were not revealed.
The housing ministry was not responding to calls at the time of going to press.