The government has decided to ban warehousing in the congested capital and enact new rules on chemical storage after the worst fire accident in recent history claimed one life and displaced more than 400 people on Friday night.
Briefing the press on Saturday afternoon, Defence Minister Mariya Ahmed Didi said the president instructed relevant authorities at a meeting of the National Disaster Council earlier in the day to immediately commence work on relocating warehouses with hazardous or flammable chemicals away from residential areas of Malé.
A comprehensive regulation that covers classification, storage, disposal and handling of chemicals along with penalties for violations would be published this week, she said.
“Once we enact the regulation, we will have a legal basis to say ‘you can’t keep this here or do that there.’ But what we’re referring to as chemicals are really commonly used household items,” Mariya said.
The warehouse where the fire broke out was authorised to store “detergents, house and garden insect killer, surface sanitiser, disinfectant, insecticides, lubricants, rust converters, multi-purpose cleaners,” she revealed.
It was registered to a local company called GreenPath. A fire inspection was last conducted on May 16, she noted.
Mohamed Nasheed, operations manager of GreenPath, told the press on Sunday that the cause of the fire was unknown and noted the lack of electricity at the warehouse in Henveiru Thilafushi. “We renew our permit to store chemicals annually. Defence ministry regularly inspects the warehouse. Our permit was renewed in May this year. I assure the public that all safety measures were taken at the warehouse,” he was quoted as saying.
Asked about numerous complaints lodged before the incident by the owner of a residence in front of the warehouse – where a 47-year-old woman was trapped and died of severe burns after the fire engulfed the building – Mariya said she was unaware of the specific complaints and stressed the lack of much needed regulations during successive governments.
The authorities have been under fire over the failure to relocate chemical warehouses despite numerous complaints from concerned citizens. A tweet from last December in which the Malé mayor and defence minister were alerted to the storage of flammable chemicals used for fibreglass work at a godown in the Galolhu ward has been widely shared on social media.
Addressing criticism, Mariya said significant efforts were undertaken after the present administration took office in November to inspect chemical storage facilities, consult stakeholders and draft new rules.
There are 126 chemical warehouses in Malé, of which 82 are inside residential buildings and 98 are adjacent to residential buildings, she noted.
A project to build and lease 200 warehouses on the Thilafushi island near the capital will be expedited and completed in a few months, the state-owned Greater Malé Industrial Zone company’s managing director said at the press conference.
Construction has now started to immediately relocate 26 warehouses, Ibrahim Rasheed told the media on Sunday. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih instructed the company to complete the work within two months, he added.
At a press briefing earlier on Saturday, Malé Mayor Shifa Mohamed meanwhile welcomed the “long overdue” warehouse ban.
The city council’s role was issuing permits but it was the Maldives National Defence Force that authorises chemical storage and conducts fire safety inspections, she noted. Permits are granted to landowners who sublease to businesses, after which warehouses are often used for unauthorised purposes, she added.
The Malé City Council has only five supervisory staff to inspect the capital island, Shifa stressed, appealing for more employees or city police to properly carry out monitoring.
The council will complete inspection of all warehouses with the help of MNDF this week, she said.