Kunahadhoo Island — On a very hot, very typical, mid-morning in the Maldives, I walked the streets of this tiny island just north of the equator.
Most of its 800 residents had gathered at the shoreline to greet visitors from a nearby island. While they focused on a first-of-a-kind beach cleanup along the rocky coast, accompanied by a drum band and dancing, I took a small walking tour looking for something the Maldives doesn’t have much of: drinking water.
(A late morning visit to its elementary school provided another interesting glimpse into island life. While most of the students raised their hands and said they knew how to swim, virtually none had ever worn a mask and snorkel, so had no idea of the rich life that surrounded their island home.)
It was quickly evident from the jury-rigged plumbing systems fitted to the exteriors of most of the one-story cement homes that the options for delivering clean water were few. Some homes had barrels for collecting rainwater; others had wells dug into the rocky island terrain. Most of them, they admitted, leaked.
A recent news story from another Maldivian island group exemplified the problem, reporting that a dozen islands had nearly run out of water completely. Everyone on the island also admitted that if it weren’t for the arrival of the weekly cargo boat, and its bottles of water in plastic, they wouldn’t last a week on what they had in storage.
“I am very upset with the government because we need water,” 42-year-old Jameela Aboobakuru from Gaafaru had explained to the Maldives Bug. “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 $22 a day to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, on a combined daily income of just $26.
“She said her 12-member family was spending $22 a day to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, on a combined daily income of just $26.”
That means 85 percent of their income was going to buy fresh water.
The response from the government in Male was that it was installing water makers in a boat that could travel from island to island to help out in such emergencies.
Just two days before my walk around Kunahadhoo, the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu had actually declared a state of emergency due to a severe shortage of fresh water. Officials in that Indian Ocean island group were reporting that some parts of the country had only two days of water left. Its tiny island of Nukulaelae reported it had just 60 liters of drinking water left for 330 people.
Like the Maldives, Tuvalu relies almost exclusively on rainwater collected from the roofs of homes and government buildings to supply a population of 10,000.
Speaking at the WaterWoMen conference I was attending on the neighboring island in Laamu Atoll, Dr. Jacqueline Chan, president of Water Charity, which helps communities around the world find clean water and sanitation, reminded us all that the lack of clean water was certainly not a problem faced by the Maldives or Tuvalu alone.
“There are 884 million people in the world without access to safe water,” she said. “That’s the equivalent of the populations of the U.S., Vietnam, Germany, the U.K., Kuwait, Russia, Thailand, France, Italy and Qatar combined. “If all those countries had no water, would we do something? Or just stand by and watch?”
In a lively debate that concluded the day, Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age) was specific in his prediction about the planet’s future when it comes to clean water: “Long before we run out of water, we’ll go to war over it.
“Nature loves cockroaches and algae as much as it does people, and it’s possible only they will survive.”