Para­dox in Par­adise

Beauty that may not last long.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid The writer is a free­lance con­trib­u­tor for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions.

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.

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