Aishath Haseena* and her sisters, clutching empty bottles, rushed to the water tank near the mosque as soon as the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) officials finished re-filling the tank. It had been empty for over two weeks.
“Water tanks in almost all the houses are empty now. So everyone started to collect water from the public tanks. But, two weeks back, the public tanks also ran out of water,” Haseena, a resident of Hithadhoo in Addu Atoll, told Minivan News today.
While 90 percent of the atoll’s population depend on rain water – often collected in household water tanks as a principal source of water – the reduced rainfall during the dry season (January-June) leaves several islands across Maldives in a severe annual water crisis.
According to the National Disaster Management Center (NDMC), so far this year 58 islands have reported water shortages and asked for emergency water supplies.
“We have received requests for water from 58 islands facing severe water shortages. We are working with the MNDF to supply emergency drinking water to those islands as soon as possible,” NDMC Project Director Hisaan Hassan said.
Among the worst-hit areas were the islands of Addu city, with a population of nearly 30,000. The MNDF is now providing the islands with water from the desalination plant situated on the Southern Regional Harbour on Hithadhoo island.
“People were buying bottled water from shops when the MNDF started refilling the public water tanks, including schools and mosques,” Haseena observed. “People were very worried, because they use rainwater for drinking and bottled water is so expensive. Everyone can’t afford them on a regular basis,” she added.
According to MNDF media official Lieutenant Abdulla Mohamed, last week nearly 10 tonnes of water were supplied to the islands daily.
Meanwhile, Mohamed also noted that 35 tonnes of water were collected from the Felivaru fish processing plant and carried to islands of Baa and Raa atoll on a finish vessel. The water was discharged into both public and household water tanks using pipes, he explained.
“We are also facilitating NDMC to provide water to rest of islands facing shortages” Lieutenant Mohamed noted.
All islands in the Maldives do not have a functioning water supply and distribution network that can ensure sufficient supply of safe freshwater during dry periods, except Male’, Vilingili and Hulhumale’, which are home to over a third of the total population.
While surface fresh water is generally lacking throughout the country, key problems pertaining to freshwater security relate to the of increasingly variable rainfall patterns induced by climatic change and the management of saline groundwater.
Until recently, groundwater was commonly used for all purposes including drinking and cooking, however, following the 2004 tsunami the underground water wells in most islands were contaminated by sewage, waste and salt water – thus increasing the use of rainwater.
However, the rain water storage is limited with an average household storage capacity of 2500 liters on most islands. And due to the changing weather patterns and prolonged dry periods, the islands experience severe shortage of drinking water, prompting calls for emergency water supply.
Current figures from NDMC show that in the dry seasons of 2009 and 2010, the Maldivian government supplied desalinated water to over 90 islands at a cost of Rf10 million (US$640,000). The average cost of this service is expected to rise with fuel prices.
NDMC noted that the centre is working to find a sustainable solution to the annual water crisis, which is being “discussed at policy level”.
Meanwhile several internationally funded projects have been initiated over the past years to provide sustainable water solutions.
The Ministry of Housing and Environment and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) last year signed a US$8.5 million project to provide “climate smart freshwater solutions” to three densely populated islands; Ihavandho in Haa Alif atoll, Mahibadhoo in Alif Dhaalu atoll and Gadhdhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu. This project is estimated to provide clean water to more than 6700 people.
The United States government is meanwhile providing US$7.1 million towards an integrated water resource system on Lhaviyani Hinnavaru and Haa alif Dhihdhoo islands, under an agreement signed last year between the two governments. Both islands have approximate populations of 4000.
* Name changed on request