How the Maldives is restoring water security

Water everywhere – but not where the people need it most – fresh, and in their homes

In 2014, the (former) President of the Maldives was forced to cut short an overseas trip to tackle an unfolding water crisis in the capital, Malé.

The crisis was triggered by a fire at a desalination plant, which this densely-populated city relies upon for its water supply. The fire left more than a third of the population without water for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and cooking, leaving the small island in a state of emergency.

The incident highlighted the precariousness of the Maldives’ water supply and the pressing need for a solution.

Climate crisis

Malé’s fresh water resources have come under threat from climate change, with rainfall and rising sea levels of around 3mm a year polluting groundwater. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this has resulted in drinking water shortages becoming commonplace during the dry season, with significant impacts on people’s health, food security and productivity.

Poor sanitation and groundwater contamination have exacerbated the risk of water-borne diseases, with women in particular affected by poor-quality water due to their family roles in cooking, washing, bathing children and house cleaning. Complaints of skin irritations and infections are also common.

As climate change continues to develop, enhancing water security and building more resilient islands is a key focus for the Republic of Maldives.

President of the Republic of Maldives H.E. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said: “To the Maldives, and to billions of people across the planet, the choice is obvious. We must act [on climate change] with utmost urgency.”

Taking action

In 2017 the Maldives government launched a $28.2 million project, with the backing of the Green Climate Fund and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), to secure a year-round, safe, reliable and uninterrupted water supply for residents of the most vulnerable outer islands

Following delays due to COVID-19, the project is now nearing completion and the new climate-resilient Integrated Water Resources Management systems (IWRM), which bring together rainwater, groundwater and desalinated water – will serve as distribution hubs for seven northern islands during the dry season. The IWRM systems are now operational on the four main islands of Nolhivaranfaru, Foakaidhoo, Maduvvari, and Dharavandhoo.

The project has also completed 17 rainwater harvesting systems that feature tanks that use ultrafiltration to treat harvested rainwater, collecting 150 tonnes of water in addition to water collected at various public buildings. These systems are expected to provide an additional 3,750 tonnes of water storage for 25 communities, providing around 20,000 people with an uninterrupted supply of clean water.

Planning ahead

The government has set out a dry period potable water security plan. There is also a new monitoring portal that enables the Water and Sanitation Department to manage dry period water supply more efficiently by recording the islands’ water reserves, facilitating councils’ requests for water, logging grievances and service interruptions, and enhancing coordination.

The department can also monitor and analyse groundwater conditions using a new geographic information system (GIS). The project has also worked with the Maldives Meteorological Service, with the introduction of six Automatic Weather Stations that provide more accurate rainfall predictions for improved rainwater harvesting.

Effecting change

Occupational standards have been developed for water operation, sewerage operation, plumbing, and laboratory operation, as well as courses for the National Skill Development Authority. It is the first time a national certificate level course has been developed for the sector. The Water and Sanitation Department also has a new online learning management system for hosting up-to-date training material for ongoing use.

The project has contributed to the water sector legislation and regulations, including the Water and Sewerage Act and Utility Regulatory Authority Act, which aim to improve water resource management, and influence legislation mandating water production within the country to be fully powered via renewable sources.

Cost effective

By combining expensive desalination technology with expanding water harvesting capabilities and cutting down the cost of imported fuel by switching to renewable energy, the project is a cost-effective solution to water security.

Water is now more affordable for households and the state, with the cost of supplying water during dry periods costing around 40% less, according to the UNDP, providing annual savings of around MVR 1.5 million (US$98,000).

Due to the scalability of such an efficient model, the Ministry of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure has adopted this infrastructure across the other atolls and islands too.

Access to safe drinking water will result in a significant reduction of waterborne diseases on these islands. Continued monitoring of the quality and consumption of groundwater will ensure that unclean drinking water and annual water shortages no longer occur.


The cost of water

More than a quarter of the outer islands’ population live under the poverty line of US $2 per day, making bottled water an expensive cost.

With its crucial desalination plant out of action in the Maldives capital of Malé, fresh water supplies are dangerously low

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