Abdulla Yameen, the Maldives president, has urged patience as discontent over a drinking-water crisis continues in parts of the country following a crippling fire in a major desalination plant.

Much of the capital Male was still without drinking water on Saturday after a blaze on Thursday knocked out the desalination plant that supplies fresh water to the densely populated city.

"President Abdulla Yameen has appealed to the Maldivian public to remain patient and united, while working with the government to resolve the national crisis," the president's office said in a statement.

Yameen said he would assure a "steady and adequate supply" of water until the crisis was resolved.

India and Sri Lanka began airlifting bottled water to the Indian Ocean country on Friday as taps ran dry.

China and the US were rushing help, the Maldives government said.

India also sent ships with desalination capabilities to boost supplies.

Street scuffles broke out on Friday in Male at many places where authorities were distributing bottled water under a strict ration system.

The government said on Saturday that it would distribute water free of charge to about 120,000 residents, including thousands of expatriate workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, following reports that the foreign labourers were being denied water at some distribution centres.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a former president, urged Maldivians to remain calm.

"Govt working hard to solve Male water crisis asap. Let us keep calm till it is solved!" Gayoom, who is the half-brother of the current president, said on Twitter.

Pressure on resources

Maldives officials say it could take up to five days to repair the fire damage at the desalination plant and restore normal water supply.

More than a third of the local Maldivian population of 330,000 lives in Male, putting huge pressure on resources such as drinking water and electricity.

Many restaurants and shops remained closed and residents travelled to neighbouring islands where there is water available for washing and drinking.

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

The low-lying island of Male has an efficient system of harvesting rain water, but the groundwater cannot be used for drinking or washing and residents rely heavily on treated sea water.

Maldives is the smallest nation in South Asia, and over one million tourists are drawn to its turquoise seas and pristine white sandy beaches every year.

Source: Agencies