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On tap: How the Maldives is restoring water security on its most vulnerable outer islands

  • On tap: How the Maldives is restoring water security on its most vulnerable outer islands

About the entity

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
UNDP works in about 170 countries and territories, helping to achieve the eradication of poverty, and the reduction of inequalities and exclusion. We help countries to develop policies, leadership skills, partnering abilities.

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

With no water flowing in one of the most densely populated capitals of the world, and more than a third of the population left without water for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and cooking, the small island state was in a state of emergency requiring immediate international assistance. 

The crisis was triggered by an event, a fire at a desalination plant. But it reflected a greater issue: the overall precariousness of the Maldives’ water supply. And the acute need for preparedness as climate change places even greater pressure on the dwindling precious resource.

Surrounded by sea, on the front lines of climate change

With more than three quarters of its 1,190 coral islands standing less than 1 meter above sea level, the Maldives is extremely vulnerable to climate change.

The impacts are already in evidence. Records show the small island state is already seeing significant warming alongside decreasing total rainfall, sea level rise, and more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as flash floods.

Taken together, and in addition to existing human-driven pressures on the natural environment, the country faces a perfect storm. The government recognises the scale of the challenges and is focused on climate action. Adaptation has remained a top national priority.

A worsening water crisis

Over the years, the small island state’s freshwater resources have faced increasing pressures from overuse and pollution. Now, the impacts of climate change are compounding the challenges, with rainfall becoming increasingly unpredictable and rising sea levels (currently around 3mm/year) polluting precious sources of groundwater.

Drinking water shortages have become a regular occurrence on the outer islands during the dry season, with significant impacts on people’s health, food security and productivity.

Drinking water shortages have become a regular occurrence on the outer islands during the dry season

Poor sanitation and groundwater contamination has exacerbated the risk of water-borne diseases. Women in particular have been 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 common.

Enhancing water security is a key focus under the small island state’s climate goals and one of the ways the government is building more resilient islands.

Making water shortages a thing of the past

In 2017, the Government of the Maldives launched a $28.2 million project with the backing of the Green Climate Fund and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to secure year-round, safe, reliable, and uninterrupted water supply to residents of the most vulnerable outer islands – around 105,000 people, or one third of the national population.

Despite some delays due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and supply chain issues, the project is now nearing completion.

New climate-resilient Integrated Water Resources Management systems (IWRM) are now operational on the four main islands of Nolhivaranfaru, Foakaidhoo, Maduvvari, and Dharavandhoo. The systems – which bring together rainwater, groundwater and desalinated water – will serve as distribution hubs for seven northern islands during the dry season.

Seventeen Rainwater Harvesting Systems have also been completed. The systems are an improvement on existing community systems, with the tanks designed to collect 150 tonnes of water in addition to water collected at various public buildings. Unlike the existing community tanks, the project’s systems use ultrafiltration to treat harvested rainwater.

In total, the Rainwater Harvesting Systems are expected to provide an additional 3,750 tonnes of water storage for 25 communities, reducing the need to request supplies from the capital.

Taken together, the systems will provide around 20,000 people with an uninterrupted supply of clean water and ease the impacts of water shortages.

A dry period potable water security plan has been completed, looking at the existing dry period water supply process and making practical recommendations for its improvement.

Meanwhile, a new monitoring portal enables the Water and Sanitation Department to manage dry period water supply in a more efficient way by recording the islands’ water reserves, facilitating councils’ requests for water, logging grievances and service interruptions, and enhancing coordination before shortages hit.

The department is also able to continuously monitor and analyze groundwater conditions using a new geographic information system (GIS).

The project has been working closely with the Maldives Meteorological Service to enhance weather forecasting and enable improved harvesting of rainwater. SixAutomatic Weather Stations have been handed over, supporting the collection of climate-related data and informing more accurate rainfall predictions.

An update to the popular weather app Moosun now enables any of the app’s 43,000+ users – including utility companies, households, and councils – to receive location-based notifications on the probability and volume of rainfall in a particular area.

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 has a new online learning management system for hosting up-to-date training material for ongoing use.

From the Earth, for long-term resilience

One of the most important goals of the project has been to help improve groundwater quality for household use.

With this aim, the project has completed the first systematic study of groundwater in the Maldives, across 37 islands. The results will inform island-specific designs and management policies for sustainable groundwater recharge and restoration into the future.

A number of resources are now available to water sector practitioners, relevant authorities and researchers including a groundwater improvement guide, screening approach, and a baseline assessment.

Groundwater management plans are being finalized, to be handed over to island councils and ministries for reference in land use planning and overall development projects. Officials from across government agencies and the National University have received training in how to conduct detailed groundwater assessments, equipping them to continue the monitoring program.

On the legislative front, the project has greatly contributed to the formulation and enactment of water sector legislation and regulations, including the Water and Sewerage Act and Utility Regulatory Authority Act, both aimed at improving water resource management across the country.

The project has also specifically influenced legislation mandating water production within the country to be fully powered via renewable sources. This not only adds to the country’s carbon neutral ambition but also reduces its dependency on fuel imports for its water security.

A Tariff Model has been developed for the Utility Regulatory Authority to adopt the best possible rates that are sustainable and affordable.

A turning point

The project represents a turning point in water security in the Maldives, marking a move away from reactive emergency measures to longer-term solutions, with benefits on all fronts.

Importantly, the project’s model is cost-effective, combining expensive desalination technology with expanding the water harvesting capabilities and cutting down the cost of imported fuel by switching to renewable energy. The decentralization of water production and distribution means communities will now have access to water in a more timely way during the emergency seasons.

Water will be more affordable for households and the state. The cost of supplying water during dry periods will be cut by an estimated 40 percent: an annual saving 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 now fully adopted it and is currently installing necessary infrastructure across the other atolls and islands.

The project has leveraged more than US$333 million in public funds for further scaling, engendering a true transformation in addressing water shortages, and helping meet the government’s pledge to provide water networks to all inhabited islands by 2023.

With access to safe drinking water, communities will see reduced risk of waterborne disease, improved social security, and less outward migration from outer islands, with flow on benefits for development, local tourism and livelihoods.

With recharge and monitoring efforts established under the project, the quality and consumption of groundwater will progressively be restored.

Ultimately, each and every citizen will have clean water on tap, when they need it.

Making annual water shortages, a thing of the past.

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