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.
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