Every time Mariyam gives her 2-year-old daughter water to drink from their tank at home, it represents a small miracle.

For a nation surrounded by thousands of square kilometers of ocean, Maldives has still had to think carefully about water. Access to water supply and sanitation is a fundamental need and a human right. It is vital for the dignity and health of all people. Moreover, the health and economic benefits of water supply and sanitation to households and individuals – and especially to children – are well documented and are essential to any effort to alleviate poverty.

Island ecosystems such as Maldives’ are among the most vulnerable on Earth, and the soil is highly porous as well as poor. Infiltration of rainwater is often immediate, with the rainwater forming a “lens” that floats on the saltwater table and that rises and falls with the tide.This lens is the only source of water on Maldives’ small coral islands. It is especially susceptible to rapid depletion and to pollution by human wastes and chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which leach easily through the soil. The exhaustion or contamination of the lens can cause irreparable damage, rendering an island unfit for human habitation.

About one-quarter of all Maldivians do not have access to safe drinking water, and 20% remain without adequate means of human waste disposal. However, these numbers continue to improve dramatically, thanks in large part to a revolving fund set up in the early 1990s to enable Maldivian households to purchase high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, rainwater tanks.

The HDPE tank revolving fund, operating now for more than a decade, has been a major success story for UNICEF in Maldives and is a sustainable means of providing increased rainwater storage capacity to rural islands. Previously, Maldivians outside Male’ tended to use the often-contaminated groundwater as the primary source of drinking water.

Now, like Mariyam, they can use rainwater instead, helping Maldives to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. Under the HDPE revolving fund, households using a loan repayable over two years can purchase tanks from a range of capacities.

Initial seed money was provided by UNICEF, but the revolving fund is now continually topped up by household repayments, enabling even more tanks to be purchased and sold.A 2,500-litre tank is sufficient to ensure that each member of the average Maldivian family of eight has 10 litres of safe drinking water per day, every day of the year. This means that they do not have to resort to using contaminated groundwater for drinking or cooking, and it greatly reduces the risk of water- and sanitation-related diseases being spread.More than 5,400 HDPE tanks have now been provided to island households through the revolving fund, with the result that nearly 1 in 5 rural households have access to the tanks.

The revolving fund also has helped make HDPE tanks a technology aspired to throughout Maldives. The Government has now adopted the distribution of household and community rainwater tanks as its own programme, and tanks are available on the open market. The market price continues to fall, from Rf. 4,500 for a 2,500-litre tank in 1995 to Rf. 3,222 in 2002.UNICEF continues to support Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority’s information, education and communications activities to ensure that the success of the revolving fund is accompanied by safe rainwater collection practices and hygiene-related behaviour. Working together, the maximum benefit can thus be derived for Mariyam’s daughter – and all Maldives’ children.

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