Maldives leader cuts short tour to tackle water crisis

MALE, Maldives - Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen cut short his trip to Malaysia to deal with a drinking water crisis in the honeymoon islands' capital that triggered unrest on the streets, his office said Sunday.

Residents of the main island of Male faced a third straight day without adequate supplies of tap water after a fire at a desalination plant led to severe shortages and mounting anger.

"President Yameen has cut short his unofficial visit to Malaysia and arrived back in Male (on Saturday night)," his office said in a statement.

Yameen was working with officials to ease the crisis, including by distributing tonnes of bottled water flown in from neighbouring India and Sri Lanka as well as ally China, it said.

Yameen on Saturday appealed to Maldivians to remain "patient and united, while working with the government to resolve the national crisis".

The government has declared Sunday and Monday public holidays to dampen the anger that has led to fights among residents and attacks on shops that rationed bottled water.

The situation was calm Sunday in Male, one of the world's most densely populated capitals, after the rushed-in supplies started reaching residents.

Residents said the capital's main supplier had also begun pumping water for short periods, but pressure was too low to reach upper floor apartments in high-rise buildings.

The crisis has not hit the atoll nation's luxury tourist resorts located on other islands, which have their own power generation and desalination plants.

The government has promised to distribute water free to some 120,000 residents, including thousands of expatriate workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The announcement followed reports that foreign labourers were being denied water at some distribution centres.

Officials say it could take up to a week to repair the desalination plant and restore normal water supply.

Over a third of the local population of 330,000 Sunni Muslims live in Male, putting huge pressure on drinking water and electricity.

Low-lying Male island relies heavily on treated sea-water for drinking supplies.

Many restaurants and shops were closed and some residents travelled to neighbouring islands for drinking water and washing.

Over one million tourists annually visit the pristine white-sand beaches of the Maldives.