Freshwater shortages are not uncommon in Male, the island capital of the Maldives
Freshwater shortages are not uncommon in Male, the island capital of the Maldives yet, at the start of December 2014, the country declared a ‘disaster situation’ after the city of 104,000 people had no running water for over of ten days. The island, which is home to 130,000 people, 50,000 of whom are temporary and semi-permanent workers from India and Bangladesh, relies on desalination plants to supply nearly all of its freshwater. As well as causing wide felt disruption and a huge international effort to restore drinking water to Male, there were fears that tourism, which supplies thirty percent of the country’s GDP and is the main source of income for the islands, would suffer as foreigners grow more concerned about the Maldives’ vulnerability to the poor management of resources.
Figure 1: The location of the Maldives
While the Maldives is more susceptible than most island nations to the fluctuations of the weather in the Indian Ocean, the main cause of these water shortages was a fire that swept through the capital’s only desalination plant, rendering it completely shut down (Johnston, 2014a). Spare parts were quickly provided to the Maldivians, but with no one living in the country with the skills to get the plant up and running again, the water shortage quickly became a disaster, with nothing but rainwater to satisfy the 13,000 tonnes of water needed daily by residents.
While large hotels and hospitals have their own desalination plants on site and remained open throughout the crisis, both were threatened by the disaster in other ways as local workers juggled securing their own water supplies for drinking, cooking and washing, something that involved queuing for long periods of time, with getting to and from work.
As this was not the first time the Maldives had suffered from water shortages, there was criticism of the government for not having a contingency plan if the island capital’s only desalination plant were to stop working. This crisis highlights how an overreliance on complex technology in some developing countries can be a highly unsustainable move forwards, something echoed by Dunya Maumoon, the Maldives Foreign Minister who became responsible for coordinating the call for aid from the Maldives’ neighbours and beyond (Johnston, 2014b).
India responded to the call most quickly and sent one hundred tonnes of drinking water over the first two days of the crisis via military planes as well as the lending of two ships which themselves housed desalination plants and could become a floating solution to the crisis thereafter (BBC, 2014). Other forms of aid also came from China, Sri Lanka and the USA.
The Maldivian armed forces and the police coordinated water distribution centres after violent scuffles broke out and people became impatient for their ration of three litres of bottled water per person per day. Scenes of long lines of people dominated the distribution points and most had to stay open twenty four hours a day in order to meet demand. The weight of the water for family’s meant that few people were able to carry their own ration by hand, leading people to use their cars and motorbikes and creating traffic congestion (Johnston, 2014a) leading to and from the centres which only exacerbated the problem of distributing the supplies .
The water crisis underlined to many Maldivians the vulnerability their set of islands face. Overcrowding and over population are frequent concerns expressed by locals who also see their lifestyle on the islands threatened by the effects of rising sea levels and climate change. With a population density of 1,128 people per km2, the sixth highest national density in the world (United Nations, 2012), some argue that the Maldives have reached a point at which resource management and resilience building need to be prioritised in their national agenda.
The low-lying nature of the atolls – the highest point on the islands is just 2.5m above sea level – means natural sources of groundwater are very much limited and there are no permanent rivers on any of the islands. Fresh ground water supplies that do exist on the atolls have invariably been contaminated by waste water effluent and no treatment plant of a viable capacity exists to clean these sources.
Figure 2: Thilafushi or ‘Rubbish Island’ where all the Maldives’ waste ends up
(Source: Flickr Creative Commons User Hani Amir)
As well as raising concerns over the Maldives’ future water supply, the crisis also highlighted other resource management issues. Unprecedented levels of plastic waste were generated from the drinking bottles that were flown in over the first few days of the shortage and no sustainable solution was suggested for dealing with this waste subsequently. Rubbish in the Maldives is collected and loaded onto barges before being dumped on Thilafushi, a manmade island made up almost entirely from previous years’ accumulated refuse. From here some of this rubbish is incinerated or recycled but not at a pace which can meet the volume of waste that is being generated daily (Driver, 2014).
There is little doubt that the water shortages have highlighted the vulnerable nature of the Maldives but time will tell if it will spur the islands into finding sustainable solutions to their resource management problems more generally.
BBC (2014) Maldives in water crisis after fire at treatment plant, BBC News
Driver, C. (2014) The other side of paradise, The Daily Mail
Johnston, N. (2014a) Maldivians suffer from water shortage, Al Jazeera News
Johnston, N. (2014b) Maldives’ capital feels population pressure, Al Jazeera News
United Nations (2012) UN Data Maldives,
United Nations Statistics Division
A ring shaped coral reef that encircles a lagoon
The process that removes salts from saline water in order to make it potable
The ability to reduce the loss experienced from a natural hazard or natural phenomena, or to return to an original state more quickly by having measures in place that allow individuals and communities to adapt to their changing circumstances.
Students can design a multi-levelled action plan to tackling future water shortages, or the wider idea of resource and waste management, in Male. This can be presented to the class verbally or made into a graphically designed poster based around a Male base map.
Students can be split into three groups who each represent the social, economic and environmental parts of the Maldives. After examining the water crisis, each group should be given the chance to argue why the crisis is not ‘their fault’ and instead rests with another group.
Students can conduct research into the potential environmental damage that be done by desalination plants. This can involve investigating how a desalination plant works and how different species use the coastline and different depths of the sea.
Plastic Pollution in the Ocean
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