Paradise lost: water crisis shuts down the Maldives

When a fire damaged the plant providing water to Malé, the capital city of the Maldives, this arid island nation in the Indian Ocean went into complete shutdown. The most densely populated city in the world was left gasping for water.


Volunteers from Telecom company Dhiraagu help distribute water. (Photo: Twitter user @dhiraagu)

When a fire damaged the plant providing water to Malé, the capital city of the Maldives, this arid island nation in the Indian Ocean went into complete shutdown. The most densely populated city in the world was left gasping for water.

The Maldives, a chain of more than one thousand islands with perfect white beaches dotted with palms, has long been considered a tourist paradise. But in reality, this paradise is dangerously short of resources, water included. Lenses, or underground pockets of water, are the only source of freshwater, but they are easily depleted by heavy use or contaminated by pollution and salt from rising sea levels.

Providing drinking and domestic water for a growing population is posing an increasingly serious challenge for the government. Some of the smaller islands depend on imported bottled water and poor people say they spend a large percentage of their money on buying water.

This fragile situation became a nightmare last week when a fire damaged the desalination facility that provides water to the capital city of Malé, which is the most densely populated city in the world. Suddenly, more than 100,000 inhabitants were left without drinking water.


Since the water crisis began, many people begin their day by waiting in line for water, like the person who took this photo. (Photo posted on Twitter by @Aieshas)


“The crisis is not under control”

Abdulla Fathyn is a Malé resident.




During the first few hours after the fire, everyone panicked and ran to the shops to buy all the water available. There were even a few fights, though it is calmer now.

The crisis is not yet under control. Most government functions have been shut down for nine days because of this crisis. Only the private sector is working. The police and army are distributing water at 24-hour water distribution points. You have to wait for hours, but at least you can get water. The hardest thing, though, is for people to carry the water home. That can cause real difficulties [Editor’s note: Some local groups like the Maldives Autism Association have been organising to help get water to vulnerable families, including those with special needs children who can’t wait in long queues].


This app, created by Kickstart just days after the water crisis began, shows water distribution points in Malé.


Some organisations have stepped in to help the government by mobilising to deliver water to those who may not be able to queue, like parents of disabled children. This is water to be delivered by volunteers to needy families. (Photo posted on Twitter by user @maldivesautism)

The water company was able to repair one control panel within 48 hours. With that, they can pump about 3,000 tonnes a day… but the city needs more than 20,000 tonnes a day to function.

With the repaired control panel, our building is getting a few hours of water a day, but the pressure isn’t high enough to get it to the higher floors. It has finally reached our second-floor apartment but, at first, we had to fill buckets on the ground floor and carry them up. Many people still have to because many buildings are eight to ten stories tall.

In a crisis, Maldivians unite despite political divisions [Editor’s note: The fledgling democracy is tense, with the government and opposition, which was formerly in power, swapping accusations of violence and oppression. Islamic extremism is also on the rise.] In our building, we’ve been carrying water to other people’s apartments, especially those who are more vulnerable. Moreover, the lucky people who do have water aren’t charging each other for water use.

"There are no mechanisms to collect rainwater"

In the Maldives, even the water that comes from the plant is not so good for drinking. If you can afford it, you buy bottled water. Poor people have to make do with the water that comes through the taps, but they boil it [Editor’s note: Our Observer spoke to several undocumented Bangladeshi construction workers who actually said they were enjoying the crisis situation because they were getting free bottled water.]

About 90 percent of buildings here have a groundwater well in the basement, but this water is quite salty and mostly just used for toilets. However, we’ve been using it in the past few days. We’ve only used it for domestic tasks, but I’m sure if someone drank it, they’d get sick. We’ve noticed that it has gotten saltier [Editor’s note: Excessive depletion of these lenses causes salt water infiltration].

This Malé resident collects rain water from his jet ski, probably to use for cleaning. He is being resourceful as the city is not equipped with rainwater collection systems. (Photo by our Observer)

Another Malé resident found another way to collect rain water. (Photo posted to Twitter by user @Aieshas)

It rains every day but there are no mechanisms in Malé households to collect rain water. Most of the buildings in the capital are five or ten stories. On some of the other islands, they do collect rainwater but, in the capital city, we’ve become too dependent on the desalination plant.



“There’s a water war between India and China”

Officials say it could take up to a week to repair the plant and restore normal water supply.

In the meantime, the government asked for international help. India delivered almost 1,000 tonnes of water and brought several ships equipped with reverse osmosis equipment to treat water on December 7. China delivered another 1000 tonnes and more equipment a day later. For our Observer, this is turning into a real splash-down between two regional powers who have already been fighting over influence in the Indian Ocean.



India is trying to keep up its friendship with the Maldives and China is trying to build one. They’ve embarked on a water war, both trying to gain our friendship through water. We are in a very strategic location for trade and defence. [Editor’s note: Eighty percent of China's oil and 65 percent of India's is transported in tankers across the Indian Ocean, one of the reasons that these waters are crucially important to these three great powers].

The salt contamination of the groundwater is just one way these unlucky islands are being affected by climate change and rising sea levels. In essence, the islands are being eaten by the sea. Warmer water and increased acidity is eroding the coral structure of the islands and stronger waves are eroding its banks.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Brenna Daldorph (@brennad87)