Coral is­lands un­der threat?

Action Asia - - ISLANDS -

The spec­tre of ris­ing sea-lev­els haunts the fu­ture of many is­lands world­wide. The threat would seem es­pe­cially ur­gent for coral is­lands: low-ly­ing lands formed by up­lifted reefs or by reefs that ac­cu­mu­late sand and other de­tri­tus over time. It is widely be­lieved that many of th­ese could dis­ap­pear en­tirely if sea lev­els rise by sev­eral me­tres from to­day’s lev­els. The en­tire coun­try of the Mal­dives, com­prised en­tirely of coral is­lands and atolls, would then be at risk. This led then-pres­i­dent Naseed to de­clare in 2009 that they would be­come the world’s first car­bon-neu­tral coun­try. The same year, he even chaired a head­line­grab­bing un­der­wa­ter cab­i­net meet­ing. The world ac­claimed Naseed’s fore­sight and lead­er­ship but even then the ev­i­dence that the is­lands are sink­ing was patchy. The prob­lem is that coral is­lands nat­u­rally shift over time. They lie on a plat­form of cal­cium car­bon­ate de­rived from dead coral – what’s left af­ter fish and oth­ers have grazed on live corals, to­gether with that killed by vi­o­lent storms. Ground down over time, the re­sult­ing sed­i­ment can then be de­posited on­shore. A storm might bring fresh ma­te­rial to one stretch of coast while erod­ing else­where, caus­ing the is­land to creep in­finites­i­mally across the sea. Piece­meal mea­sure­ments of beach ero­sion can there­fore of­ten seem to sug­gest sea-level en­croach­ment, but need to be taken as part of a big­ger pic­ture. New Zealand coastal ge­o­mor­phol­o­gist Paul Kench, of the Univer­sity of Auckland’s School of En­vi­ron­ment, has led a study of how reef is­lands in the Pa­cific and In­dian Oceans re­spond to ris­ing sea lev­els. His work sug­gests that more is­lands are grow­ing than are shrink­ing. If he is right, it still poses a huge chal­lenge to a coun­try like the Mal­dives that has put al­most all its bets on tourism by build­ing more than 100 re­sorts, many on oth­er­wise un­in­hab­ited is­lands. Even if they do not sink un­der the waves, large shifts in coast­lines will mean wide­spread and ex­pen­sive mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures to pro­tect their in­vest­ments. The present gov­ern­ment seems un­fazed. Un­der Pres­i­dent Ab­dulla Yameen, the coun­try has taken a dif­fer­ent tack, no longer talk­ing of car­bon neu­tral­ity and buy­ing land to re­house, and in­stead con­cen­trat­ing on mak­ing money while they can. Among the new pro­jects ap­proved are Em­bood­hoo La­goon, a three-is­land re­sort with a ma­rina and a Hard Rock ho­tel. The de­vel­op­ers, Singha Es­tate, are as keen as any in the coun­try to be clear that they will also be “sup­port­ing the Mal­dives’ eco­log­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment”. The ques­tion may be, how long will it con­tinue to sup­port them?

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