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Climate Change Pushes Maldives into Uncharted Waters; Ecosystem-based Adaptation is Imperative for its Survival.

Coral bleaching 2010, Maniyafushi, 0ver 50% corals bleached but recovered causing little mortality.

In a new United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report titled, the “Working Group II Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report” released on 24 March 2014, like its past reports,  scientists predict apocalyptic consequences unless the world changes course immediately and dramatically, the fundamental systems that support human civilization are at risk.

The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the effects of warming are “Risk of death, injury, and disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones and small island developing states, due to sea-level rise, coastal flooding, and storm surges.”

The effects of warming on the Maldives further push it into uncharted waters. Maldives is a coral atoll based nation and coral ecosystem adds significantly to the national economy. Maldives tourism heavily depends on the goods and services the reefs provide in addition to the coastal protection they provide.

Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently projected the rise of the sea level worldwide by two feet by 2100 as a result of melting ice sheets and the expanding of the sea by warming seawater.

2010, Maniyafushi, partially dead coral.

Temperature increase human induced coral bleaching.

Warming of the sea and changes to the weather pattern has been associated with coral bleaching leading to wide spread damage to coral reefs at a global scale.

Coral bleaching is caused when rising water temperatures stress the coral, forcing the coral to expel the algae it uses to obtain food and other nutrients.

When water temperatures rise even slightly (1-2 Degrees Celsius), algae leave the coral polyp causing the coral to lose its colour and eventually die due to insufficient food source.

Coral bleaching in 1998 in Maldives, severely beached 90% of hard corals in shallow waters. Bleaching was also recorded at depths in access of down to 30m. Post bleaching survey of the reefs at several location throughout the atolls across the country by Marine Research Centre showed a little over 2% on in 2004 shows recovery of 2 to 29% live coral, but the recovery extremely varies between the sites. Southern atolls showed faster recovery whereas the central and northern atoll showed slower recovery indicating regional differences in terms of reef recovery.

Bandos house reef, 2010 bleaching. A good recovery at one of the monitoring sites by MRC as part of long term monitoring of reefs initiated in 1998. The impact of 2010 bleaching was not significant since 90%of bleached corals recovered.

With IPCC predictions in increase in frequency of bleaching at global level, Maldives also witnessed coral bleaching event again in June 2010, similar to coral bleaching since of 1998 bleaching event. However, damage to the reefs due to bleaching of 2010 was far less that of 1998. Previous exposure to severe condition of bleaching may have resulted in conditioning the coral to recurrent exposure. This perceived increase in resilience is seen a positive indicator that the reefs can buffer extreme environmental pressure.

With little sign of reducing climate related pressure it is important to reduce and manage human induced pressures on these important ecosystems. Adaptation to climate change by changing the attitudes society to use natural resources at ecosystem level has always been important. The goods and services provided by the coral reefs and the pressures on these services are now been understood in the context of their capacity to natural and human pressures at ecosystem level.

Therefore, ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change is vital to Maldives to ensure these ecosystems are maintained to ensure inter generational equity.


Ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change is vital to Maldives

Conserving terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems and restoring degraded ecosystems should be vital for the overall goals of National Climate Change Adaption Plan for the Maldives. The atoll island ecosystems play a crucial role in providing number of ecosystem goods and services that are necessary for well-being of the people and the very survival of the islands in adapting to climate change.

Huraa Mangrove. Protected but surrounding development of various infrastructures are encroaching causing concerns.

Coral reefs act as first line of defence against wave action and storm surges and reduce coastal erosion.

Shallow Lagoon and sea grass beds of island in between the reef and beach act as second line of defence.

The coastal vegetation (Heylhi) with salt tolerant plants act as third line of defence.

Mangroves play vital role in protecting the atoll islands from coastal erosion by the waves, stop erosion and protect the islands.

Even though atoll ecosystems provide a wide range ecosystem based services, the degradation of many ecosystems due to the local human activities are drastically reducing the capacity to protect the islands, livelihood and loss of biodiversity.

The poor waste management and disposal via dumping untreated waste near coastal shores hamper coral growth and damage coral reefs. Untreated sewage into coastal areas creates potential problems such nutrient enrichment, algal blooms and eutrophication. Such situations badly upset coral reef.

It is imperative to protect the coral reefs, sea grass, coastal vegetation and wetlands to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change. Conserving island terrestrial, freshwater and marine island ecosystems and restoring degraded ecosystems should be vital for the overall goals of National Climate Change Adaption Plan for the Maldives.



Today is World Water Day. Following an initiative at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to mark March 22 of each year as the World Day for Water. The UN is marking International Decade for Action: “Water for Life” 2005-2015, calling for global action on water and water-related issues, aiming to reduce poverty and increase access to better health and sanitation.

A child stands near a water tap used for collecting water in a village in Nepal. The UN is marking 2005-2015 as Water for Life decade.

Bluepeace is concerned that, as we mark the Water Day, several islands of Maldives are plagued with a shortage of drinking water, as reported by Minivan News.

“I am very upset with the government because we need water,” said 42-year old Jameela Aboobakuru from Gaafaru. “We ran out of water, so we borrowed water from our brother. When he ran out of water we started buying bottled water imported from Male’.”

She said her 12-member family was spending US$22 a day to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking; their daily income, she added, was only US$26.

On another island, Gulhi, Ahmed Ibrahim, the island office assistant director, said islanders had been importing bottles water from the capital as well as in jerry cans.

“They are getting water somehow,” he said, “but the island needs a permanent solution to this problem like piped desalinated water.”


After the tsunami of December 2004, several aid organizations provided islands with plastic water tanks. In addition, UNICEF provided 23 desalination plants, each costing US $ 70,000 to islands affected by the tsunami. Despite community water tanks found in abundance in islands, there is no national mechanism to prepare for a dry spell or a shortage of drinking water. Some desalination plants donated to islands by aid agencies are not being used or are out of order. Bluepeace calls for a national policy and mechanism to deal with such a crisis and ensure that the people have access to safe drinking water throughout the year.

Bluepeace had in the past raised the issue of groundwater contamination, caused in most cases by untreated sewage seeping into the groundwater. This is a problem in the capital Male’ — where approximately one-third of the population lives — because of the poor design of the sewerage system. In Male’, contaminated groundwater is used by some households for washing dishes and clothes, while a few households use groundwater for bathing as piped desalinated water is too expensive. The use of septic tanks and primitive sewerage systems in other islands cause the effluent to sink into the ground, leading to contamination of the groundwater. Unlike Malé, in the other islands, majority of the households use groundwater for washing clothes, dishes and for bathing, as piped desalinated water is not available. When rainwater is depleted, during dry spells, the people drink groundwater in several islands. In fact, 25% of the people of the Maldives depend on groundwater for drinking according to State of the Environment Report 2002.

Mangroves suck up more carbon dioxide per unit area than sea phytoplankton, a key factor in global warming. Mangroves are not adequately protected in the Maldives.

On World Water Day, Bluepeace reiterates its call for preservation of freshwater ecosystems and mangroves in the Maldives. Such ecosystems are home to a number of species of plants and organisms and are important to preserve biodiversity. As Maldives embarks on a bold and ambitious plan to be carbon-neutral within 10 years, the role of mangroves in absorbing carbon dioxide should not be overlooked. Mangroves in the Maldives also protect the coastlines from erosion, and absorbed the lethal power of the tsunami in 2004, acting as a layer of protection. Atoll mangroves in the Maldives are threatened by development projects, reclamation plans, garbage disposal and introduction of alien species, among other issues.

On World Water Day, the government, media, civil society organisations, aid agencies, and other stakeholders should be thinking of ways to collaborate during the Water for Life Decade to make water a resource for poverty reduction, improving healthcare and preservation of our precious environment.

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(updated below)

The sad deaths of five young men in a well in Malé Fish Market on 3 March 2008 (Youth Day in the Maldives) shocked the people of the Maldives and have raised concerns about the safety of the use of groundwater in Malé. Those young men had been in the process of drilling boreholes in the well to increase the water level, because the well dried up easily. The well was used as the main source of water for cleaning fish and washing the floor of Fish Market in Malé.

It took 5 young men to die to stop using contaminated groundwater in the Fish Market.

According to Malé Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) abnormally high levels of hydrogen sulphide (a sewer gas) and carbon monoxide were found in the well while oxygen level was very low. Doctors at the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) believed the men had died from inhalation of toxic gases. A doctor from the hospital told the media that the five men could have died from methane, a gas which could displace oxygen in confined spaces.

According to the State of the Environment Report 2002, the groundwater in Malé is not fit for washing and bathing purposes as Malé has the highest level of bacterial contamination of the groundwater table in the Maldives. The groundwater in Malé is very saline and the situation is further aggravated by the amount of chemicals in the water such as hydrogen sulphide and hydrocarbons.

“Hydrogen sulphide or sewer gas has also been a major threat to well water users in Malé resulting in acute poisoning of two and death of one person in 1997. Hydrogen sulphide makes the water stink and poses different health risks at different levels of exposure. Many household wells have shown elevated levels (0.5 to 3.5 ppm in water and above 100 ppm in the air) of hydrogen sulphide,” State of the Environment Report 2002 said.

A WHO report of 1995 further says that chemical analysis in Male’ shows that groundwater contains high amounts of nitrate and sulphates. High levels of ammonia were detected in a few wells (0.4-0.6 mg/l) indicating sewage pollution while raised pH levels (7.5 -8.0) confirmed the extent of contamination.

The people of the Maldives had traditionally been dependent on groundwater from shallow wells dug in the ground for drinking, bathing and washing purposes.


In Malé hardly anyone uses the groundwater presently for drinking. However, several households in Malé depend on groundwater for washing clothes and dishes while some households still use groundwater for bathing as piped desalinated water is too expensive.

Unlike other inhabited islands in the Maldives hardly any household in Malé sink effluent (sewage and waste water) into the ground using septic tanks. Household effluent is collected in catch pits and transferred to MWSC’s Central Sewage System. If this is the case, why is the groundwater in Malé contaminated with sewage? For more than a decade, sewage manholes have been causing sewage infiltration into groundwater because of defective manhole housing. In addition, the poor design and construction of catch pits used in households have lead to further infiltration of sewage into groundwater. In order to reduce the pressure from sewer gases in manholes and thus reduce infiltration, MWSC erected sewage vents in Malé, some of them located in public parks.

Children playing next to a vent of a sewage pumping station in a public park in Malé.

The use of septic tanks and the primitive sewage systems in the rest of the country causes equally alarming problems. Sinking of effluent into the ground has caused contamination of groundwater in several islands of the Maldives. Unlike Malé, in the other islands the people use groundwater for washing clothes, dishes and for bathing, as piped desalinated water is not available. When rainwater is depleted, during dry spells, the people drink groundwater in several islands. In fact, 25% of the people of the Maldives depend on groundwater for drinking according to State of the Environment Report 2002.

Presently most of the wells built in Malé are inside a building, in a room or office, in the ground floor, covered with a lid on the opening, normally not air tight. If these wells have sewer gases accumulated, how safe is the use of such places without good ventilation?

As the country is still trying to figure out how the unfortunate deaths of five young men took place on Youth Day, the regulatory body of water and sanitation issues in the Maldives (Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority) remains silent on this issue.

Maldives: State of the Environment 2002 pages 36-40

UPDATE – 14 March 2008

Miadhu Daily, a newspaper owned by Mr. Ahmed Abdullah, Minister of Environment, Energy and Water, has published an article titled ” Fatal incident in a well in fish market: Water was tested at fish market area prior incident – MFDA” on 13 March 2008.

According to Miadhu, the Maldives Food and Drug Authority (MFDA), which has been established in 2006 to centralise the setting of standards relating to food and drugs in Maldives, has carried out a groundwater testing in the Fish Market area in January 2008. The tests carried out by the MFDA indicated presence of “considerable amounts of hydrogen sulphide and ammonium in that area”.

What is amazing to learn is that even the MFDA, while being scientifically aware of the high concentration of deadly gases in the groundwater of Male’, much prior to the deaths on Youth Day, had failed to take measures to stop the use of contaminated water to wash fish and the Fish Market’s floors.

MFDA, being completely aware of the presence of the high concentration hydrogen sulphide in the groundwater of Male’ for years, has so far not taken preventive measures, or issued a public health announcement to stop the use of groundwater in food outlets for washing dishes.

As some of our readers has suggested, Maldives Water and Sanitation Authority (MWSA) established in 1973 as regulatory body for water and sanitation in Maldives is presently not functioning properly, while MFDA have to carry out groundwater testing in the Fish Market on the request of Male’ Municipality. The whole case shows failure of respective regulatory bodies.

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