Malé Par­adise in a Sham­bles

The Mal­dives is a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion that is grad­u­ally be­com­ing a vic­tim to the cru­elty of de­te­ri­o­rat­ing weather conditions and con­tin­u­ing hu­man ex­ploita­tion.

Southasia - - MALÉ - By Prof. S. Shafiqur Rehman

The Mal­dives - the small­est, least pop­u­lated and a unique is­land coun­try in South Asia, is sit­u­ated in the Lac­cadive Sea in the Cen­tral In­dian Ocean, south­east of the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent. This small South Asian coun­try is known the world over for its heav­enly beauty thanks to a serene blue sea, white beaches, turquoise la­goons, coral reefs, colour­ful wildlife and lush green man­grove forests. It has tourist at­trac­tions like kite surf­ing, scuba div­ing, snor­kel­ing, kayak­ing, sailing and game fish­ing that at­tract over a mil­lion tourists every year. The Madives’ unique­ness is due to its is­landic set­ting in an ex­cep­tional con­stel­la­tion of 1190 un­equal coral is­lands in two par­al­lel chains of 22 dis­con­nected atolls - rings of closely-placed small coral is­lands sur­round­ing shal­low la­goons.

The atolls have formed over the lon­gi­tu­di­nally run­ning Lac­cadive-Cha­gos sub­ma­rine ridge and are spread over 90,000 square kilo­me­ters with a land area of just 1% in a 300 square kilo­me­ter space and a max­i­mum el­e­va­tion of just over 2 me­ters above the mean sea level. The Mal­dives is about 820 kilo­me­ters long from north to south and 120 kilo­me­ters wide east to west. Its 22 atolls are di­vided into twenty ad­min­is­tra­tive units. Re­cent es­ti­mates show the pop­u­la­tion as be­ing close to 4.5 mil­lion, with only 200 is­lands in­hab­ited while the re­main­ing is­lands are used for recre­ation, sports, tourist re­sorts and trash dump­ing.

Among the eight South Asian na­tions, the Mal­dives oc­cu­pies the most southerly po­si­tion, be­ing lo­cated at the equa­tor in the trop­i­cal mon­soon cli­mate zone char­ac­ter­ized by warm and hu­mid weather through­out the year. How­ever, on the ba­sis of rain­fall, ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ sea­sons are distin­guished. The wet sea­son lasts from mid-May to Oc­to­ber when the south­west mon­soon brings heavy rain­fall, while the dry sea­son pre­vails from Novem­ber to April un­der the in­flu­ence of the north­east mon­soon. To­tal pre­cip­i­ta­tion de­creases from the south­ern to the north­ern atolls but, on av­er­age, 1600-2300 mm of rain­fall is re­ceived per year. In the ab­sence of rivers or streams, sed­i­ment sup­ply from in­land sources is neg­li­gi­ble so the coastal wa­ters around the Mal­dives are very clear and have ideal conditions for coral growth.

The archipelago of the Mal­dives has di­verse aquatic and ter­res­trial ecosys­tems that play a vi­tal role in the econ­omy and con­trib­ute to the seren­ity and bio­di­ver­sity. The coastal ecosys­tem is made up of coral reefs, la­goons, sandy beaches, wet lands, sea­grass beds and man­grove for­est. The ter­res­trial ecosys­tem com­prises un­in­hab­ited is­lands that serve as a habi­tat for sev­eral an­i­mal species such as seabird, tur­tles, fruit bats and a few but­ter­flies. Rev­enue gen­er­a­tion in the Mal­dives re­lies on tourism, fish­ing, ship­ping and trade. This, in turn, de­pends upon the health of the coastal, marine and ter­res­trial ecosys­tems for the growth of the na­tional econ­omy. How­ever, on­go­ing so­cio-eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, the rapidly grow­ing pop­u­la­tion and over-ex­ploita­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources has ex­ac­er­bated en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion over the last two decades.

Nat­u­ral and an­thro­pogenic en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and chal­lenges may pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat for the low-ly­ing coun­try if ap­pro­pri­ate and ur­gent steps are not taken to save it. Some of the most prom­i­nent nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues fac­ing the Mal­dives in­clude sea-level rise due to global warm­ing, tsunamis, storm surges, cy­clones, tor­ren­tial rains/floods, droughts, fresh­wa­ter shortage and beach ero­sion. Man-made en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems in­clude waste man­age­ment, air pol­lu­tion, plas­tic pol­lu­tion, ground­wa­ter pol­lu­tion, soil degra­da­tion, de­for­esta­tion, dredg­ing, coral min­ing, in­ad­e­quate sewage treat­ment and over­fish­ing.

The im­pact of the rise in sea level will not only in­un­date the al­ready scarce land area of the coun­try but may also re­duce the thick­ness of fresh­wa­ter lenses on densely in­hab­ited is­lands and soon cause a se­vere shortage of fresh­wa­ter. The grad­ual sea level rise, if su­per­im­posed by the storm over-wash of the is­lands, may fur­ther ac­cen­tu­ate the is­sue through sali­na­tion or con­tam­i­na­tion of the fresh­wa­ter lenses and cause a cri­sis for the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and tourists.

Although the Mal­di­vian archipelago is a part of the tec­ton­i­cally sta­ble por­tion of Indo-Aus­tralian plate and rel­a­tively free from seis­mic haz­ards, yet five shal­low fo­cus earth­quakes (10 to 33 km deep) with mag­ni­tudes rang­ing from 4.0 to 7.1 on the Richter scale, have been recorded dur­ing the past seven decades. Cer­tain south­ern atolls were also hit and par­tially dam­aged by a 7.6 mag­ni­tude earth­quake on Jul. 15, 2003, that orig­i­nated about 450 km west at the Carls­berg Ridge in the In­dian

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