Paradox in Paradise
Beauty that may not last long.
The survival of the people of the Maldives, the world’s lowestlying country has always been precarious. With more than 80 per cent of land less than 1.6 meters above sea level, the rising sea and tidal waves are washing away the country’s coastline on many of the 196 inhabited islands. Worse still is the fact that there is no insurance policy in place for residents to cover the costs. Over the years, climate change has become a real cause for concern for the Maldivians who are not equipped to deal with the rapidly changing environment around them. Global leaders concluded talks recently on the issue, hoping to sign an accord that can slow down climate change in the region but nothing concrete has come out of it so far.
The reality is uglier and less romantic than what one sees in pictures. The coastline is littered with floating bottles and cans next to diapers washed from beach landfills. Even the islands’ famed coral reef has been affected due to over-fishing that has deprived the reef of its cleansing fish. The coral is also suffering from El Nino’s last visit in 1998, a tsunami that occurred in 2004 and an overall warming of the waters. Marine life is unable to cope with the wastewater that remains largely untreated by the islands’ inhabitants.
Financially speaking, the country’s nebulous political past is responsible for its persistent public debt. The small paradise, 1,000 nautical miles away from any land, is following the same path as many other territories going through an ecological and financial crisis. The Maldivian government is adopting a more proactive approach, as it is well aware of the consequences that a decaying ecosystem could have on tourism, which accounts for 40% of the island's GDP.
But another threat has the government concerned: just barely above sea level, the islands risk going
under rather sooner than later, as ocean water levels rise from the effects of global warming. It was in the face of this threat that President Mohamed Nasheed, back in 2009, made what was a stunning pledge. He vowed to make the Maldives carbon-neutral within a decade, by moving to wind and solar power. His aim was simple: to raise general awareness and set an example for other small, less energyintegrated countries.
Sadly, however, the leaders that followed after Nasheed was overthrown in 2012 felt that a 100 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 was a bit too ambitious so the target was revised to 10 per cent by 2030. Critics of the present government say this stance may have something to do with encouraging oil drilling in the country. Interestingly enough, the Maldives has a long-standing history of taking the lead on climate change issues because it remains the most vulnerable country to rising sea levels. In fact, the islands will be inundated by the end of the century if the mid-range prediction on sea-level rise proves correct -- no part of its thousand-plus islands is more than 2.4 meters high.
Stark contradictions also exist in the Maldives' second biggest industry, fishing. Traditional pole-and-line caught tuna is as sustainable as tuna fishing can be, yet the groupers and snappers which form a cornerstone of the coral ecosystem which underpin the islands, are being fished out. Sea cucumbers, fat as marrows, are going the same way and the use of the lagoon-nurseries where sharks and rays breed their young for sea cucumber farms is growing, along with the risks of pollution.
Many of these problems could be solved. Some solutions, like solar power, are cheaper in the Maldives than the status quo, but incur an upfront cost. The inevitable tension between raising incomes in a relatively poor nation and over-exploiting the natural source of the wealth is creating a paradox.
But perhaps the biggest challenge of all is apathy. For most Maldivians, the problems are out of sight and out of mind. Travel in the vast archipelago is expensive and most Maldivians will see only two or three of the 1,200 islands. Many, especially women, cannot swim and so do not see the riches below the sea's turquoise surface, such as the orange and white clownfish snuggling into the waving mauve and green-tipped tentacles of their anemone homes.
It makes sense for the Maldives to implement an innovative and adaptive strategy that includes healthier climate-resilient ecosystems as the way forward. Environmental organizations such as Bluepeace in the Maldives advocate an ecosystem-based adaptation for the short and long term. That entails conserving terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems as well as restoring those degraded. Of particular concern is the health of coral reefs on which the nation’s key economic activity of tourism depends critically. Coral reefs are also the first line of defense against wave action and storm surges. The warming seas triggered large scale coral bleaching in 1998 and 2010, causing much damage. Ibrahim Naeem, director of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Coastal Zone Management Centre, located in Malé, agrees. Adopting integrated coastal zone management (ICZM), a scientific method to balance competing demands, can help countries to reconcile those demands and many pressures on the coast.
For the longer term, elevating entire islands is an option, albeit a very expensive one. An example is the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé that stands two meters above sea level.
Can the Maldivians adapt fast enough to outpace the rising seas? Despite their passionate climate advocacy for over a quarter century, that remains uncertain.