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Acute Water Shortage Leads to State of Emergency in the Maldives

Several countries are transporting water and other aid to the Indian Ocean nation, but climate change could prove to be its greatest long-term challenge.
Image via AP/Sinan Hussain

The Maldives, an Indian Ocean nation comprised of nearly 1,200 islands, would seem an unlikely country to experience a water crisis. Yet it is now facing a state of emergency, after a fire at the sole desalination plant in the capital city of Male resulted in a severe water shortage and triggered an international response.

The fire on Thursday struck the state-owned Male Water and Sewerage Company, leaving 120,000 residents in the capital without readily-available drinking water. By Saturday, aid was pouring in from India, which sent nearly a half-million gallons of bottled water by plane and another quarter-million gallons aboard two naval vessels. Bangladesh has also shipped bottled water and five portable desalination units.


China, too, flew water to the Maldives over the weekend and has donated $500,000 to repair the desalination plant. The Maldivian government has estimated that it will cost around $20 million to get the plant back online — a steep price for a nation whose GDP ranks in the world's bottom quintile. Tourism accounts for nearly a third of the country's economic activity; in 2012, the Maldives received nearly 1 million visitors.

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According to Maldives Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim, the country has set up a designated water crisis management fund and is seeking financial assistance from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and other nations in the Middle East. An unidentified Saudi businessman has already donated $1 million.

On the ground, the situation has calmed after a spate of initial unrest. Though security forces were distributing water last week to anyone with a Maldivian ID card, migrant workers from countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka were denied access. In some places, expatriates were reportedly harassed and pushed out of line.

After activists from the Maldivian Democracy Network expressed outrage, the government expanded its water supply efforts to include non-citizens.

"President Abdulla Yameen has appealed to the Maldivian public to remain patient and united, while working with the government to resolve the national crisis," the president's office said in a statement.


Climate change and sea level rise may prove the country's greatest long-term challenge.

The government's response, though, has drawn praise from some quarters. "The 130,000 residents in Male are being provided bottled water and desalinated water via public taps and mobile vehicles," the United Nations Population Fund said in a statement. "Distinct measures are also taken to address the needs of vulnerable and special needs populations."

Freshwater concerns are not a new development in the Maldives. The country has no permanent rivers or streams, and rainwater is only collected at a small scale. According to the United Nations, groundwater "becomes contaminated while percolating through the soil, which is generally polluted with organic and human waste."

That leaves desalination, which supplies water to some 300 million coastal people worldwide. The need for desalination is especially acute on Male, among the world's most densely populated urban areas. In the 1990s, rapid population growth in Male left the island's aquifer contaminated with salt and far outstripped rainwater collection capacity, leading to the construction of the desalination plant that last week went up in flames.

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Though the Maldives' lack of access to freshwater constitutes an immediate emergency, climate change and sea-level rise may prove the country's greatest long-term challenge. The Maldives, built not on sand but on coral atolls, is the world's lowest-lying nation; in 2008, former president Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic climate change activist, established a fund to buy a new homeland for his people. Since Nasheed resigned in 2012 following a police mutiny, however, the Maldives has largely withdrawn from the international global warming debate.

Over the weekend, many Male residents departed for neighboring islands to stock up on water. On adjacent atolls, upscale resorts catering to wealthy tourists operate desalination plants of their own and have thus remained unfazed — a stark contrast to the situation in the capital, where Male Water and Sewerage has elected to continue charging for water services, albeit at a 30 percent discount, to the ire of many.

"Water should be provided free of charge until the water crisis is resolved," Rozaina Adam, deputy leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, said during a press conference.

Follow Ben Goldfarb on Twitter: @ben_a_goldfarb