Maldives - The Rising Danger
Coming from the Maldives and having lived abroad for the majority of my life, I am by now extremely used to the rib-digging witticisms about how we are going to cease to exist VERY soon and in effect become the next Atlantis. This comes almost as a reflex response by a majority of the foreigners I know, upon hearing that I am indeed from the Maldives. I knew that there was some truth behind all these jibes and after many years of weary procrastination (read: denial), I have finally decided to meticulously research and find out all that there is to know about the effects of global warming on the Maldives.
For those of you who don’t already know, the Maldives is an island nation, comprised of a total of 26 atolls and 1,190 coral islands, of which roughly 250 islands are inhabited. Having gained recognition in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s flattest country, the highest point stands at a mere 2.3 meters above the sea level. Taking into account buildings- the highest building is “Velaanaage” which is 14 floors and 45 metres high.
This is of course one of the biggest problems the island nation faces. An estimated 80% of the islands are one metre or less above sea level, making them particularly vulnerable to storms and changes in the sea level. Having realised this a long time ago, a 3.5 metre sea wall (made out of concrete tetra pods) was built around the capital, Male’, as a safety measure and at the cost of around US $60 million.
This proved to be particularly effective during the tsunami, when the sea wall stopped the wide scale destruction of half the capital. However, the rest of the nation suffered a considerable amount of destruction, along with flooding and most of the islands were submerged for a while. Due to the effectiveness of the barrier against the destructiveness of the tsunami, it has been put forward that the nation should have a ‘necklace’ around their islands, which come at a considerable cost; both in terms of money and beauty.
Fortunately for us, our President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has been extremely persistent and proactive in regards to addressing the problems related to the effects of global warming on Maldives and what measures can be taken. As early as in 1992 at the United Nations Earth Summit he took a stand to point out the possible effects of global warming on the Maldives, at the risk of sounding like an alarmist. In April 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast that world sea levels were likely to rise above 59 cm (23.3 inches) by 2100. President Gayoom replied promptly to say that if international action was not taken against global warming, the chances were that the Maldives would be totally inundated.
When the Kyoto Protocol was first released in November 1997, the Maldives were amongst the first few countries to sign the agreement. This is because the treaty proved to be an international ground for the main cause which they are fighting for; it was seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, in order to slow down the global warming process. However, with the passing of time, it is very apparent that the Kyoto Protocol is not as effective as it was intended to be. The United States of America, a key player, which was solely responsible for one quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions 2 years ago have still not signed on, neither have they shown any intention of signing on. Meanwhile, China which overtook the United States in carbon emissions last year has been a member since the 30th of August 2002.
Global warming, while coaxing up the sea level, also increases the temperature of the sea. This directly impacts the well being of Maldives as tourism is the country’s biggest foreign currency earner and the single largest contributor to the GDP, along with it’s fishery industry which contributes to the livelihood of the population. Today, there are 89 resorts in the Maldives with a bed capacity of over 17,000, providing world class facilities for tourists whose annual arrival figure exceeds 600,000.
Maldives is the epitome of natural beauty and tourists who visit the country have high expectations. A result of the rising sea temperature is that the snorkelling reefs surrounding many islands are slowly being killed off. This affects the beaches of the islands in two ways, firstly, it kills the flora and fauna living there, which results in the loss of the supply of new sand and secondly when the reef vanishes it makes the shoreline increase dramatically.
To protect the islands against this, an experiment was carried out in 1996 at the tourist resort island of Ihuru by Tom Goreau- President of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, Wolf Hilbertz - President of Sun & Sea and Azeez Hakeem. They constructed a necklace out of new technology known as Biorock, which uses safe direct electrical currents provided by solar panels to grow solid limestone structures in the sea, to speed up coral growth and survival. The necklace was constructed out of welded construction steel rods which were 45 meters long, 4-8 meters wide and 1.5 meters high. This was a great success as it replenished the dying coral reefs and also amazingly resulted in the growth of the once-eroding beach by 15 meters. Sadly, this project was not adopted elsewhere by the relevant authorities as they frivolously dismissed it as a gimmick.
As for government initiatives, what they have worked on for the past few years is the development of the island of Hulhumale. This is an artificial island, built by engineers and created to be a flood-resistant one. It was built by a huge dredge that sucked up sand from the ocean floor, which was then disgorged into a shallow lagoon. Hulhumale was built at least 5 feet higher than other islands for safety purposes and stands on a concrete base designed to withstand high seas. While simultaneously providing a safer place for people to live on, it also addresses the problem of overcrowding in the capital of Male’. Currently a few thousand people are residing there and the government intends to increase that number up to around 50 thousand people
Obviously the bill for creating Hulhumale and “raising” other islands are not cheap. President Gayoom wants developed countries such as Europe and the United States to pay for the construction efforts, which are crucial for the survival (or at least prolonging the life) of Maldives. His argument is simple yet resounding. He states if industrialised nations are the causes behind global warming- they should ultimately be responsible for its effects. Once again at the UN 2007’s Climate Change Meeting in Bali, President Gayoom said,
“Over half our islands are eroding at an alarming rate. Without immediate action, the long-term habitation of our tiny islands is in serious doubt.”
Many different scenarios have been planned for. While this is the current strategy, in a worse case scenario, our population may have to face the threat of permanent relocation in a different country, making us “environmental refugee’s”. This thought, even to me- a person who doesn’t live in Male’ is an awful one. The fact that we will have to leave the place of our origins and end up with no place to call home, where all sense of familiarity will be lost.
From a more personal perspective, there are a few more points I would like to make. First of all, as a Maldivian per se, the effects of global warming on Maldives was not a very pressing threat to me up until recent times. However, the tsunami on the 26th of December 2006 was a startling wake up call for Maldivians the world over. This encompasses those who had to watch their life savings disappear in a matter of minutes, to those who lost their loved ones or listen in horror to the experiences of those who faced the wrath of nature.
I personally feel that though the government is on the right track, they should look a bit closer to home and depart more efforts into raising awareness. Though efforts such as celebrating World Earth Day and the likes are undertaken, the message has still not sunk in. I mean, even when you walk past the fish market where umpteen amounts of produce exchange hands, numerous non-biodegradable plastic bags are used daily. The government should probably incorporate this subject matter into the curriculum taught in schools and undertake a campaign throughout the islands to drive the message home. As one Maldivian says, “At the moment the state of our environment is simply a non-issue in the politics of our country.”
That being said, President Gayoom’s firm stand and constant re-iteration of our problems on an international level is admirable. It is an extremely worrying thought that like dinosaurs, our nation and all the traditions, culture and heritage which has been cultivated and carefully passed down for generations, may forever be destroyed.