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Protecting (scarce) fresh water in the Maldives


man and desalination plantA local Feneka operator stands in front of the desalinization system. Photo: Keti Chachibaia/UNDP Maldives

Water is a big deal in the Maldives. The archipelago nation of 300,000 people is more water than land. But while abundant in ocean resources, the only freshwater is rainwater that is harvested in special collection tanks. But poor rainfall leaves groundwater tables low and harvesting tanks half empty. This leaves many people and communities straining resources to buy bottled water or struggling to get by.

A naturally vulnerable situation is only being exacerbated by climate change, as monsoonal cycles and associated rainfall patterns shift over the Indian Ocean. Greater variations are already occurring and the Maldivians, especially in the Northern atolls, experience longer-than-usual dry seasons. As a result, the National Disaster Management Centre is regularly called upon to deliver emergency water.

Can solutions be found that utilize our current resources?

A UNDP and UNOPS project, supported by the Adaptation Fund, uses Reverse Osmosis (RO) to desalinate sea water. Integrated water production and supply system plants have already been installed on the islands of Mahibadhoo, Ihavandhoo and Gadhoo. Desalination is not a new initiative of course (plants were brought to the country following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami) but the new system utilizes solar energy to cut costs (instead of diesel) and integrates fresh rainwater, making for a better tasting, cleaner and more affordable alternative.

Sea water is pumped from an underground well into the RO plant for desalinization. Rainwater collected from public roofs is simultaneously piped into the plant for filtration and disinfection. Then both desalinated seawater and purified rainwater are collected into the huge main tank and blended for distribution to the end users. A backup generator power source is available in case of emergencies, to avoid disruptions.

At the launch of a new plant in Mahibadhoo, the President of the Maldives stressed that water is the country’s most precious resource and that a new milestone of increasing freshwater availability had been reached.

I travelled to Ihavandhoo, where the integrated system has been operational a while and is now managed by the government-owned water utility company, FENEKA. The operator confirmed that Ihavandhoo is now fully self-sufficient in water and the dry season will likely pass without the need for ‘emergency water’ shipments. Moreover, the RO plant will be able to supply neighboring islands in time of need, saving budgets on costly, long-distance distribution from the capital, Male.

As with many new “solutions”, some households are still not convinced, waiting to see if other users are satisfied and if there are risks to switching to the system. But many others in the community confirmed that the water is affordable and they no longer need to buy bottled water. This is a big game changer in the country where bottled water is common, placing a financial burden on families and piling up trash.

New and effective water supply solutions can be found to support those who face the impacts of climate change. Such integrated water production and supply instills greater confidence in Maldivians in coping with risks and uncertainties of climate change.

Enhancing water security is one of the Maldives Government’s intended contributions towards climate change and the Paris Agreement. This includes a commitment to develop policies and implement programs to address water shortages facing the islands during the dry periods.

In response to this target, the Green Climate Fund has recently approved the Maldivian submission to scale up support to vulnerable communities to manage climate change-induced water shortages. The foundation laid down by UNDP and the Adaptation Fund will now help lead to support across 49 islands, offering a much bigger and truly transformative change.

Keti Chachibaia Blog post Climate change and disaster risk reduction Energy Asia & the Pacific Maldives Adaptation Climate change Disaster risk management

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