Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Maldives - An Atlantis for our age?

The Maldives is considered a paradise destination by Europeans. Why, then, did its President announce national plans, in 2008, to purchase land in India, Sri Lanka and Australia? Land that would give his nation the option of mass migration?

He provided the answer himself. “We do not want to leave the Maldives but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.”

The Maldives is not the only small island state to be concerned about rising sea levels. It is a member of the Alliance of Small Island States that was formed to address global warming. Its members, having low-lying coasts and being small island countries (not part of a much larger state), have good reason to be concerned by climate change.

The rising sea levels would not merely erode valuable land. They could lead to the disappearance of the country itself.

Even within this group of states, however, the Maldives has a special place.

It is the lowest-lying country in the world. The maximum natural ground level is only 2.3 metres while the average is only 1.5 metres above sea level. The 2004 tsunami destroyed 14 out of the 199 inhabited islands and displaced about 15,000 people (out of a population of about 313,000).

The dangers of climate change are therefore not abstract to Maldivians. Whether through a series of huge catastrophes or through gradual consistent rises in the sea level the country can really become an Atlantis for our age. The country’s own government made the same point flamboyantly when, on October 17, 2009, it held the world’s first-ever underwater Cabinet meeting! That attempt to gain the world’s attention has also been supplemented by more orthodox proposals on the human dimension of climate change.

The human dimension needs underlining. The extreme vulnerability of the Maldives brings it out clearly. It shows why the EU needs to remain engaged with projects in that country and others like it. Climate change does not need tackling only at a technocratic level. It raises issues of social justice and democracy as well.

Back in February, I was a member of the European Parliament’s South Asia delegation that visited the Maldives to inspect the EU-funded educational and health projects. The images of paradise hit one immediately. The corals were multi-coloured, purple, orange and grey. The tropical fish took one’s breath away. Blue-striped fish with orange tails, yellow fish with black tails and translucent strange creatures with turquoise eyes swam in and out with the flow of the water, as though in a giant aquarium. The main island is surrounded by powder-white sand, where small stingrays and black-tipped baby sharks swim along the sandy bottom.

The mention of those dangerous fish reminds one that it is not quite paradise. However, the major problems facing the Maldives have to do with people.

The atolls are scattered over 1,000 kilometres. This feature is what gives each atoll a sense of untouched paradise and makes tourism, besides fisheries, the major source of income. However, it is a logistical nightmare for a government trying to organise proper education, health care and administration. Each island has its local council.

A democratic central government needs to be committed to both connectivity and decentralisation. Although the present government styles itself as centre-right, its commitment to social justice and welfare seemed worthy of a centre-left party.

It is also the country’s first democratic government, following a 30-year dictatorship. During this period, the country was a haven of luxury tourism while the population itself was seen as made up of the paupers of the Indian Ocean. The development problems have not been solved yet.

In 2009, GDP contracted by three per cent. The GDP per capita was $4,200. The Corruption Perception Index ranked the country at 130 (out of 180). The Human Development Index for 2010 placed the country at 107 (out of 169). On the brighter side, the Press Freedom Index gave a rank of 52 (out of 175).

The point of running through these statistics is to show the additional challenge raised by climate change.

Imagine the country requires substantial demographic movements, either from some islands to the major ones or from the Maldives to other countries.

The success of the migrations will depend on the people’s ability to fit in democratically and economically. Otherwise, problems will pile up and become insurmountable. Maldivians would find themselves flooded by the sea and struggling not to sink in the ensuing political, economic and social problems. Atlantis is only romantic if you are not its citizen.

Malta is not as vulnerable as the Maldives. However, as a small island state, it is vulnerable enough to have something to learn from the Maldives and something to gain by offering its solidarity.


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