Maldives: Water is worth loving

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Valpuri Saarelma, International Federation information and reporting delegate in the Maldives

"Water is worth loving" is a Finnish advertising slogan, but it also describes how precious water resources can be in the Maldives. The surface area of the country of close to 1,200 islands is 99 per cent seawater and almost all of the about 200 inhabited islands are dependent on harvested rainwater as the principal source of drinking water.

During the dry season that runs from January to April, fresh water resources can run drastically low leaving people in acute need of additional supplies.

The International Federation, with funding from the Australian Red Cross, is completing a supplementary water system project on 15 islands in the Maldives to ensure secure access to safe water for the island communities. In practice, the supplementary water supply is a system which desalinates seawater into drinkable, safe water. Even though optimizing rainwater harvesting is the preferred way to meet the water needs of each island, the supplementary water supply provides additional security for times of low rainfall.

The value of this system has already been shown. During this year's dry season, seven of the ten completed water systems were used to supply water to communities in need. The communities manage the system themselves with trained operators in charge of the day-to-day operation of the unit.

Ismail Solih, a trained operator and a member of the Maduvvari Island's Water Management Committee confirms the usefulness of the water supply system: "We are very thankful knowing now that we can have safe water at any time," he says.

Ismail's comment is very relevant keeping in mind that even though Maldives is not the most disaster-prone country in the region, it still suffers from regular flooding and tidal surges, two hazards that are expected to increase because of climate change.

During tidal surges and flooding the ground water often gets contaminated by seawater and in some cases the rainwater harvesting tanks can be damaged. The limited amounts of stored rainwater are quickly exhausted and the islands are left in urgent need of clean drinking water.

This situation played out in May of this year when heavy tidal surges swamped several islands particularly in the country's south, explained Kathryn Clarkson, the International Federation's water and sanitation coordinator.

"The supplementary water systems were used to produce drinking water for islands that were short on water because of the sea surges," said Ms Clarkson.

Community water tanks were also filled using the desalination units and water was provided to evacuated island communities. "This experience highlighted the value of the system in terms of meeting emergency needs during disasters," she said.

In addition to using the desalination units during the dry season and small scale disasters, the units give the island communities the ability to manage a community water supply system and create additional income for themselves. In the case of Maduvvari Island the island Water Management Committee is selling the water to fishermen working nearby.

With the installation of the desalination plants and the rainwater harvesting kits coming to an end, the focus of the Red Cross Red Crescent is now on ensuring that the programme's results are sustainable.

"Our challenge is to make sure that communities have the skills and resources to maintain these systems," concluded Ms Clarkson.