Sunday, April 12, 2009

Will Maldives cease to exist, engulfed by seas rising from the effects of global warming?

Is the Maldives, a country of about 1,200 coral islets and 400,000 people in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Sri Lanka, living on borrowed time? Is it likely to be wiped off the face of the earth in another 40 years, engulfed by seas rising from the effects of global warming?

I’m sure there are people — politicians, businessmen, even scientists — who’d ridicule this notion and the very idea of global warming, but for the Maldives, one of the world’s smallest nations, the fear is almost mortal. The country feels it’s living in the very jaws of death and has pleaded with the world, on many occasions, to come to its rescue.

In 1992, speaking at the UN Earth Summit, the then Maldives’ president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom declared his fear of doom in these words: “I stand before you as a representative of an endangered people. We are told that, as a result of global warming and sea-level rise, my country, the Maldives, may sometime during the next century disappear from the face of the earth.”

In late 2007, at the UN climate change meeting in Bali, Gayoom sounded desperate. “Over half of our islands,” he said, “are eroding at an alarming rate. In some cases, island communities have had to be relocated to safer islands. Without immediate action, the long-term habitation of our tiny islands is in serious doubt.”

But behind these frantic pleas is a growing realisation that action by the global community just isn’t round the corner. The Maldives was the first country to sign the Kyoto protocol to fight global warming, but others haven’t quite shared its enthusiasm. So it has decided to take matters in its own hands and do whatever it can to the best of its ability.

Its immediate goal is to become a fully carbon-neutral country by 2020, switching from fossil fuel to 100 per cent renewable energy sources. It’s thinking of a mix of wind turbines and rooftop solar panels, plus power plants burning nothing but coconut husks. Its long-term goal is to save up enough to buy a new homeland elsewhere and relocate its entire population before the crunch comes.

While carbon neutrality isn’t difficult to achieve, how feasible is the idea of a new homeland? The Maldives’ new president, Mohamed Nasheed, says the savings are to come mainly from revenues earned from tourism. They could. Tourism is a major segment of the Maldives’ economy, accounting for over 30 per cent of its GDP, and the more than 600,000 tourists who visit every year are mostly high-spenders and long-stayers.

But where does one find an alternative homeland for an entire nation? It won’t be easy to find an island that’s high and safe and uninhabited or that’s not a nation already or part of a nation. And though the Maldives has held relocation talks with Sri Lanka, India, and Australia, would any country want to carve out a part of its territory and sell it to another?

Perhaps, the Maldives should start looking for a solution that’s more practical and pertinent. The basis for such a solution already exists in the form of an artificial island that’s being built just off the country’s main inhabited island of Male. It’s called Hulhumale, or New Male, and many consider it a smart answer to the Maldives’ problem of survival.

The Maldives is nowhere more than six feet above the sea level, and seas rising from a global snowmelt could easily swamp it. Memories are still fresh of the devastating 1987 floods that submerged most of Male and the December 2004 tsunami, when 53 of the country’s 199 inhabited islands suffered severe damage — 20 were totally destroyed, and 19 of its 87 luxury resorts were badly mauled.

After the 1987 floods, a frantic government responded by erecting a concrete sea wall against the waves, which now rings Male. However, since the concrete tetrapods can only soften the blow and not thwart the surges altogether, the government also began, in 1997, to build Hulhumale as an alternative refuge several feet higher than the existing height of the rest of the country.

Hulhumale, about four times the size of Male, is actually a shallow lagoon being filled with sand dredged from the ocean floor. Its straight, wide streets, modern apartments, and more than basic facilities have already attracted several thousand people to move there. More are willing to follow to escape from Male’s congestion.

For the Maldives living in fear of doom, this is a possible way out. There are other shallow lagoons in the island chain where more Hulhumales could be built, if needed, to protect its people and economy. It’s going to be costly, no doubt, but at least it makes more sense than looking to buy a new homeland, and the UN, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank might be called upon to help.


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