A finite resource
A reflection on water by Aysha Ahmed Solih, UNDP Maldives
Did you ever try to quantify the amount of water you use in a day?
The first time I tried to do this was in 2014, during the water crisis in the Maldives capital, Malé. A fire incident at the water utility company caused a 10-day disruption to the city’s water supply. While many shops ran out of bottled water, the public piped water was released for a limited time every day, and people queued up on the streets to get their share of state rationed water. My whole extended family lives in the same building, so we had a small storage tank that we filled up and shared among u, and even distributed to nearby households when we could.
I remember counting how many times I poured the small, half-litre jug to shower from the bucket of water in the bathroom, trying to use as little water as possible. It reminded me of when I was little, when I used to count how many times my grandmother poured a ‘dhaani’ full of water over my head, from the well we used to have at our house. Back then, we had a rainwater storage tank for drinking, and we used well water for other purposes. It was common practice to collect water from the public tap bays. We switched to piped desalinated water after that was introduced to households. By then, the groundwater had become unusable. And like most houses in Malé, we closed off the well when we built the house up.
The 2014 water crisis was the only 10 days in my life when I didn’t have as much water as I wanted. The experience made me realize the dozens of ways I use water every day, and how difficult it is not to have ready access. But this doesn’t compare to the daily experience of many people living in the outer islands, where drinking water shortage is an annual reality.
We all know how vulnerable our islands are, lying only a metre above sea level. In most islands, the groundwater Maldivians relied on has been contaminated beyond use. The impact is further intensified by casual actions that we do without even realizing, like improper waste disposal and agricultural practices. Climate change is only making the situation worse. Fluctuating monsoon patterns are leading to longer dry seasons and unpredictable flooding. Combine this with unsustainable groundwater extraction and the result is that freshwater lenses have depleted at a faster rate than they are naturally replenished.
When I first learned that around 80 islands request emergency water supply every year, this number really alarmed me. This means that rainwater, which is the main drinking water source on most islands, is not collected enough to last through the dry season. This means that a worrying percentage of our population does not have the security of year-round access to safe water. This means that the water some of us take for granted is a precious resource to people on these islands.
It is a costly and reactive solution to supply emergency water to these islands from Malé and the central region. The proactive solution lies in proper management of all our water resources. We’re hoping to adapt and improve, through the Green Climate Fund project that aims to address our water security issues. This involves much more than infrastructure for desalination or rainwater harvesting. It involves a process of learning and changing our behaviour. Utilizing the rainfall that is usually lost as flood water. Educating ourselves on how to collect rainwater safely. Allowing freshwater lenses to recover and using groundwater sustainably. Acknowledging our own mistakes in waste disposal and rectifying them. And most importantly, recognizing individual and community responsibility in valuing water as a finite resource.