Navigating the Unpredictable Seas of Climate Change in the Maldives

Coastal reclamation near the sea outfall on Dhidhdhoo Island.
Coastal reclamation near the sea outfall on Dhidhdhoo Island.
Priyanka Dissanayake

With an average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, the Republic of Maldives is the lowest country on the planet. It is also ground zero in the struggle against rising seas associated with climate change. About 400,000 Maldivians live on this chain of 1,200 tropical islands and coral atolls stretched across the Indian Ocean 500 miles southwest of Sri Lanka. In 2004, they watched the Indian Ocean tsunami wash over 20 islands. Today they keep a wary lookout for the increasing number of storm surges that erode beaches and swamp local communities. The global climate change community is also watching this island bellwether closely.

UN scientists predict sea level rise of up to one meter by the end of the century, which would result in the disappearance of many low-lying islands in the Maldives and cause seawater to contaminate groundwater on the remaining islands. Some of the strategies under consideration to relieve this dire situation call for buying land elsewhere and relocating the population to another country; or implementing a coherent coastal management plan that would include seawall construction, land reclamation, and green technologies. For the Maldives, it is a choice between a serious look at adaptive strategies and a future that is far from certain.

Faced with these tough choices, the Government of the Maldives is taking decisive action to implement innovative and forward-thinking solutions to protect communities from rising seas. In addition to building seawall infrastructure, the government plans to invest $1.1 billion over 10 years in alternative energy technologies including rooftop solar arrays, wind turbines, and biomass burning power plants. To further demonstrate its commitment to surviving these seas of change, the country is setting its sights on being the first nation to be carbon neutral by 2020. Such an effort by the tiny nation is not likely to make much of a dent in total worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, given that the Maldives account for less than 0.1% of the total output. But the symbolic gesture demonstrates President Mohamed Nasheed’s leadership in addressing global climate issues far beyond the shores of the Maldives. “Going green might cost a lot,” Mr. Nasheed said in a recent op-ed article, “but refusing to act now will cost us the Earth.”

To support the Government of Maldives in meeting its goals for climate resiliency and water security, USAID will implement the Program to Enhance Climate Resiliency and Water Security beginning the second half of 2011. The program will complement government strategies through an integrated water resources management approach that strengthens resiliency through community mobilization, capacity building, and the use of innovative technologies. The program will facilitate dialogue among stakeholders at all levels to identify options and solutions to the challenges of water scarcity, sea level rise, and other likely impacts of climate change.

“The proposed project will increase the resilience of freshwater resources through integrated water resources management in the densely populated island of Lh. Hinnavaru and Ha. Dhidhdhoo,” said Ms. Shaheeda Adam, Director General at the Ministry of Housing and Environment for the Maldives. “The project will ensure reliable and equitable access to the island communities’ safe freshwater in a changing climate. The health of the Maldivian communities will improve and they will all enjoy a better life,” she added.

With a budget of $7.3 million, the program is designed to mobilize the communities it serves and work with provincial utilities to design, build, and operate seawater desalinization facilities to deliver clean drinking water to the two islands. Each of these communities is home to about 4,000 people who already face water scarcity problems associated with poor sanitation practices, salt-water intrusion, and limited quantities of rainwater harvested from rooftop catchments. Both islands are undergoing land reclamation projects that will secure coastlines and provide additional living space for migrants from adjacent low-lying islands. The growing populations will put even greater pressure on water resources for these two population centers. The program will bring together key stakeholders in the water sector and help them consider alternatives for water system design, management, and cost-recovery. “People face severe water shortages in the dry season,” said Ms. Priyanka Dissanayake, activity manager for USAID/Sri Lanka, which will oversee the program. “A key element of our strategy is to emphasize capacity building and to provide solutions that fit the unique needs of these communities,” she added.

In order to address both short-term water needs and build resiliency to long-term climate change, the program will utilize Sea Water Reserse Osmosis (SWRO) technology for potable water and help build the capacity of provincial utilities to provide this and other services in a sustainable manner. To ensure sustainability, the utilities will collect fees for water provision, sewerage, solid waste collection, and other services. Renewable energy options will be assessed for the SWRO units, island power generation, and other uses. As part of an ecosystem-based approach, seawater desalination will complement other water resource management practices such as rainwater capture, groundwater rehabilitation, and preservation of natural catchment areas.

Ultimately, USAID hopes the program will serve as a model for other small islands in the Maldives and elsewhere seeking integrated solutions to the challenges of rising sea levels. “We anticipate this program will mobilize communities and encourage them to make good choices about their land and water use,” said Richard Volk, senior coastal manager for USAID. “Within this framework, the program will demonstrate the value of desalination technology and improved management of rainwater and groundwater resources, as critical components of an integrated approach to water resources management on low-lying, small islands.” USAID expects the approach to allow communities to be more resilient to climate change through greater understanding of climate vulnerabilities and the application of viable adaptation strategies.

Clearly, much is at stake in thiss effort. If successful, the Program to Enhance Climate Resiliency and Water Security in the Maldives will not only provide immediate solutions to water scarcity problems, it will also empower Maldivians to implement long term strategies that will allow them to keep living on these fragile islands for at least decades to come. Perhaps the residents of Dhidhdhoo and Hinnavaru will be the first to be able to claim they are indeed “climate resilient communities.”

S. Nelson

More Information:

USAID in the Maldives

Last updated: September 25, 2013

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