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There are no permanent rivers or streams on any of the islands, but small brackish ponds or freshwater lakes known as kulhis are found on some islands. Rainwater is collected on a small scale and used for drinking.
The Maldives finds it extremely difficult to obtain suitable drinkable water. Groundwater is found in freshwater lenses underlying the atolls and floating on top of the saline water, but heavy abstraction for municipal use has depleted them, especially in the capital city of Male, causing saltwater intrusion. Groundwater is recharged by rainfall but becomes contaminated while percolating through the soil, which is generally polluted with organic and human waste.
A rough estimate of the groundwater resources, based on an assumed 0.1 m/year recharge throughout the country (300 km2), is 0.03 km3/year, may be the Maldives’ only renewable water resource. This is hardly exploitable because of seawater intrusion and pollution (Table 2).
Where the quality of water has been degraded (by high salinity and/or polluted water), and where there is insufficient space available for rainwater collection and storage, desalination has become the only alternative means of providing a safe water supply. This is the case in the capital Male and in what was the most densely populated island Kandholhudhoo in Raa Atoll. The size of this latter island is only 0.044 km2, meaning roughly 210 m by 210 m. It was home to over 3 000 people, but it was one of the islands most affected by the tsunami and all inhabitants were left homeless and had to evacuate.
The first desalination plant in Male was installed in 1988 with a capacity of 200 m3/day. In line with increases in population and water consumption, the capacity has been increased steadily and is now 5 800 m3/day. The quantity of desalinated water used in Male has increased from 323 300 m3 in 1996 to 1 206 900 m3 in 2001, equal to about 900 and 3 300 m3/day respectively (Ibrahim et al., 2002). The desalination plant in Kandholhudhoo, constructed in 1999, has a production capacity of 50 m3/day (18 262 m3/year), and is a reverse osmosis plant.
When the population of Kandholhudhoo was served by desalinated water in May 1999, about 28 percent of the population of the Maldives had access to desalinated water and over 20 percent of the population almost entirely depended on desalinated water, besides the tourists on the resort islands. Desalination plants have been used in the Maldives’ tourist resorts since the late 1970s. Currently each resort island has its own desalination plant, which is usually operated and maintained by a technician appointed for that purpose.
A large international company signed a US$42 million water purchase agreement in 2010 with Southern Utilities Limited to provide potable water to the Southern Province of the Maldives, which includes the Seenu and Gnaviyani atolls. The current population of around 26 000 is projected to increase to around 37 000 over the life of the contract. The company will construct six seawater reverse osmosis desalination plants with a total production of 3 000 m3/day and will design and construct the distribution system to enable storage and delivery of potable water to over 4 500 households. After the commissioning period, it will operate and maintain the desalination plants for 20 years. In addition, it will design and construct four new sewage treatment plants as well as a new sewer collection system to transport wastewater from households to the new treatment plants and it will operate and maintain the sewage treatment system for the same 20 year period (IRC, 2010).