UNDP is working with partners to provide safe water for Maldivian communities. Photo: Veronica Wijaya/ UNDP Maldives.

By: Assela Pathirana - Chief Technical Advisor, UNDP Maldives

There it was. I was offered an opportunity to work with UNDP and the Ministry of Environment in a Green Climate Fund-supported project to provide safe water for the people of the Maldives, who are struggling with climate change-induced water shortages. More than a 100,000 people in 29 islands will be reached. More importantly, it will create a legacy of a positive and transformative change in the water sector in the Maldives.

I had never been to the Maldives! Eighty per cent of what someone hears about the country is about its fancy resorts and nice beaches. The world often forgets that the country has communities who face actual – and very serious climate change-related problems.

Before I started my current assignment in the Maldives, I had an opportunity to visit the country and see the reality that we are dealing with: The hundreds of communities that are distributed in tiny individual islands, each to be supplied with water and other essential lifelines; the increasingly longer dry-seasons in which emergency water has to be transferred to islands at an unbelievably high cost; and the rapidly diminishing underground freshwater lens that makes communities extremely vulnerable. The Maldives has unique and serious water challenges to deal with.

Yes, global media has focused on the vulnerability of Maldives due to sea-level rise – is an extremely serious problem. But what many don’t realize is that for the Maldives, the climate change vulnerability is no longer an abstract future risk – it is very much here!

The low lying islands of the Maldives are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Photo: Hussain Jinan.

It’s very different – but then is it?

The last twenty years have been kind to me in providing many opportunities to work with diverse groups of people from around the world on issues related to water - from the Mekong delta, Indonesia and Bangladesh to Al-Mafraq governorate in Jordan.

I have realized that the Maldives has a very different context. It’s a tiny nation in terms of population and landmass – yet at the same time an enormously complicated one, due to its geographically dispersed nature – some 1200 islands with some 187 inhabited and hundreds of resort islands! The Maldives has little to do with the above places – it belongs to the so-called Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

But, then, are the problems faced by communities – water or otherwise—so different? On the surface, it looks like that – after all these are geographically, culturally and climatologically very different areas. But at another more fundamental  level, I feel we are dealing with the same underlying problems: We are all struggling to provide the basic services for vulnerable communities – be it supplying water, keeping them safe from floods, preventing exposure to environmental hazards or mitigating the adverse impacts of human-induced climate change.

There are so many lessons that we learn in one geographical context that has applications in the other. For example, both Trà Vinh province in the Mekong Delta Vietnam and Kunburudhoo of Alif Dhaal Atoll – despite their extremely different contexts – face the same challenge of groundwater salinity.  Remote atolls of Maldives face the same problem citizens of Al-Mafraq are facing –water scarcity. There are important commonalities that we can explore when we are searching for sustainable water solutions – with one important caveat: in search of commonalities don’t forget the contrasts. Every situation also has its context which we should never forget. A healthy balance of broad global learning with appropriate local knowledge is the key here.

Woman gets water from her household water tank. Photo: UNDP Maldives

Water tells it all

To understand the globally connected nature of our existence and the intricacies added to it by local variations one does not have to look further than the climatic system – particularly the water part of it. Maldives, Solomon island, Micronesia and Vanuatu are island states that are extremely vulnerable to climate change-induced sea-level rise. Is that because these countries contributed more than others to global warming? No. In globally connected systems like the climate and water cycle, what we collectively do, impacts all. But climate hazards impact vulnerable communities much more than the others. It is our collective responsibility to slow down climate change, manage its impact on the water systems and help communities to take adaptive action to the ongoing change.

At the same time, the concrete action we take has to embrace the local realities. The Maldives is different from Micronesia although both countries are vulnerable to climate change. It is also different from Jordan though water scarcity is a common problem. Solutions to the climate and water problems have to embrace these local realities to be successful. It is our responsibility to ensure effective dialogue between a global compendium of knowledge and an awareness informed by local realities. Now this calls for a lot of effort – a global effort.

Now one may frame this as a moral duty. Of course, it is. But it is more than that. If the experiences of the global recession, the refugee crisis or the current COVID-19 pandemic are anything to go by, building resilient systems for water, electricity or otherwise - is a common-sense security precaution we all should take. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed many vulnerabilities which will need to be addressed both immediately and in the long term. But it has also demonstrated our strengths - when we work together as a global community we are able to turn the tides on some of the biggest challenges we face. In this time of crisis, it is evident now, more than ever that the only reliable way to ascertain the safety and prosperity of all of us is to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are safe. I think that is what the water system is trying to tell us.


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