Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Maldives faces tides of change

MOHAMED Nasheed carries the air of a man without much time. ''How did it go? Did we win?'' he asks an aide as he sweeps, almost at a run, down the marbled corridors of the presidential office. Told yes, the vote on the reappointment of his Minister of Islamic Affairs succeeded in his country's fractious parliament, he is pleased: ''That's good, our minister keeps his job. Now, what's next?''

The West Wing Bartlet-esque manner is no mere affection. Mohamed Nasheed is a man running out of time. As President of the Maldives, the string of paradisiacal Indian Ocean islands that could become the first nation ever lost to climate change, there are not too many minutes to waste for Nasheed.

''We've already lost it in so many senses,'' he tells The Saturday Age during a rare moment of peace in a meeting room. His country is losing three inhabited islands a year, swallowed by the ocean, he says. ''People are saying, 'we can't live there any more'. For us, it is difficult not to be worried about the climate.''

Mohamed Nasheed is compact: 155 centimetres and leanly built, with square shoulders and a narrow waist. Maldivian humidity means jackets are usually eschewed, but the 44-year-old favours formality with silver cufflinks and ties with broad knots.

As he speaks, the clipped tones of his British public school education fight for space through the lyrical lilt of Maldivian English. As a man who lives with the consequences of climate change, and looks out his window at a rising sea every day, Nasheed brooks no argument from sceptics.

Even Male - the Maldivian capital and the most densely populated island in the world, with more than 110,000 people crammed onto 1.77 square kilometres - has needed tens of millions of dollars spent on a three-metre seawall to keep the ocean from it. ''The science here is very sorted. They say there is a window of opportunity of about seven or eight years.''

For some in this archipelago, that window is already closed. Fourteen of the country's 200 inhabited islands are already gone, massive coastal erosion making their seaside villages unliveable. A further 70 islands rely on desalinated drinking water because groundwater aquifers have been overcome by seawater.

About 80 per cent of the Maldivian landmass is less than a metre above sea level. The highest point in the entire archipelago is just 2.4 metres. A sea-level rise of 59 centimetres over the next century, the upper limit forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would make most of the Maldives uninhabitable.

The government is already saving money, squirrelled away from its $600 million tourism industry, to buy land in another country if theirs is lost to the ocean. Sri Lanka and India, for their proximity, and Australia, for its space, are the names that have been publicly considered.

But it's a last resort.

Maldivians whose families have spent countless generations living on 'their' island, can't bear the thought of moving to the next atoll, Nasheed says. They can't fathom abandoning the whole country.

''I said to one lady, 'Ma'am you have to move, we have to take you to another island. And at the end of this whole thing we might have to go elsewhere, all of us.' She told me, 'You can take the island people away but you can't take the sounds away, you can't take the butterflies, you can't take the colours'.

''You can migrate a people,'' Nasheed says, ''but you cannot take a culture, you cannot take a nation, you cannot take a history.''

If the Maldives moves, the Maldives is lost.

For a man whose country needs the world's co-operation to survive, Nasheed can be undiplomatic. French newspaper Le Monde recently quoted him as saying of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change: ''The current negotiation process is stupid, useless and endless.''

To The Saturday Age, he doesn't precisely own up to the incendiary language, but nor does he shy from its sentiment. ''I think this UN FCCC is silly … It's built in a form where if two countries agree and a third country comes around and says 'I don't', and then you dilute your positions to accommodate the third country. And countries take so long even to say 'I don't' … at the end of the day the process might actually come out with an agreement that means nothing.''

He wants the framework convention process - bureaucratic, leaden, and immobile without consensus - abandoned, but suggests only in replacement ''a more imaginative way of dealing with it''.

Nasheed believes developed countries, although the largest emitters, are not the only ones that must bear the burden of emissions cuts. The right of developing countries to lift their citizens' standard of living does not absolve them from their obligation to the planet.

''If the West stopped their emissions and China, South Africa and Brazil carried on emitting on the basis of business as usual, we would still die. The Maldives would disappear,'' he said during a recent European visit.

Nasheed appreciates the complexities of trying to engineer a global climate deal that has so far eluded 17 major climate change congresses over as many years. He understands his bargaining position, and the domestic pressures guiding the hands of other nations.

He realises, too, his is a nation without economic, military or diplomatic clout. Nasheed is not above a media stunt to draw attention to the plight of his country, or to the Alliance of Small Island States, of which he is totemic leader.

In 2009 Nasheed and his ministers dressed in scuba gear for the world's first ever underwater cabinet meeting. The same year he allowed a documentary crew to follow him through his negotiations at the Copenhagen climate talks. The film that emerged, The Island President, has won acclaim at film festivals around the globe.

The week The Saturday Age was in Male, Nasheed invited the country's media to watch him install a solar panel on the roof of the president's office building, part of his pledge to make the Maldives carbon neutral by 2020.

Nasheed leans forward in conversation, and speaks quickly, a man perpetually short of hours in his day. But there was a period, his recent history, when Nasheed had nothing but time.

Returning to the Maldives from Britain in the late '80s, Nasheed became an outspoken critic of the despotic, one-party rule of his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Nasheed was jailed in 1991, the first of more than a dozen times he would be arrested and imprisoned. He was tortured by the Gayoom regime, and spent 18 months in solitary confinement in a metal shack barely 90 by 150 centimetres.

Released, he was elected to parliament in 2000, but jailed again on trumped-up charges of stealing ''unidentified government property''. His daughter Zaya was born during his second stint of solitary confinement.

Nasheed was banished to the tiny island of Angolhitheem, population 30, for six months, before being placed under house arrest. On his final release in 2003 he fled the Maldives for Sri Lanka, where he established the Maldivian Democratic Party in exile.

But he returned to his homeland, to a hero's welcome, in 2005 and in 2008, in the first ever multi-party elections held in the Maldives, beat the sitting president in a run-off vote, securing 54 per cent of the vote.

Remarkably, Nasheed has allowed the man who imprisoned him to stay in the Maldives, free from sanction or punishment.

''I have forgiven my jailers, the torturers. They were following orders … I ask people to follow my example and leave Gayoom to grow old here,'' he said upon taking office.

The elderly Maumoon remains on Male, more actively involved in the vituperative world of Maldives politics than the President's supporters would like.

Once prisoner, now President, Nasheed finds himself leading a country facing significant problems beyond the slowly rising seas. None are unique to a developing Muslim country or an island state, but they are especially acute in his tiny, diffuse homeland.

The Maldives has a massive youth bulge: 44 per cent of the country is under 14, and 62 per cent under 25, but jobs for any, especially beyond working on a tourist resort, are hard to find. In the atolls, a quarter of all young men are unemployed, half of all young women.

The country also has a serious drug problem. An epidemic of cheap heroin has swept through the archipelago, but taken root in Male in particular. The UN has estimated 40 per cent of the country's youth use hard drugs.

Nasheed, a Muslim as the Maldives constitution obliges all Maldivians to be, also faces a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. Wahhabist Islamic scholars, most schooled in madrassas in Pakistan, are radicalising Islam in the Maldives. Female circumcision is practised, and is reportedly on the increase, across the archipelago. There are calls for the return of amputation for crimes and for the banning of music and dancing. Women are flogged for having extra-marital sex.

Every effort to resist this gathering radicalisation is painted by Nasheed's political opponents as an attack on Islam. After Islamist protesters threatened on a website to ''slaughter anybody against Islam'', Nasheed was forced into confrontation: ''Kill me before you kill a fellow Maldivian.''

Financially, too, the Maldives' dependence on wealthy Western tourists has left it vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the global economy. The IMF this year withheld loans, declaring the Maldives at moderate risk of debt distress, and forced the country to introduce an income tax and a GST, as well as massively reduce government spending, largely through cutting the country's bloated public service.

Everywhere in the Maldives, the government's new eye for the frugal is apparent. The former Presidential Palace has become the Supreme Court (Nasheed lives in his own house), even the ornate leather thrones that were once in the meeting room where he meets with The Saturday Age have been replaced by bottom-of-the-line blue-cloth office chairs.

But climate change dominates the President's agenda. While the course of global climate action is largely in the hands of others, Mohamed Nasheed says he feels a sense of responsibility to do what he can to save his country.

''Any responsible Maldives government should be mindful of what might happen in the future, and save for that rainy day.''

His government talks of climate contingencies, of floating islands, desalination and of making a new homeland in other countries, but he believes the Maldives' only chance lies with holding back the tide. And time is running out.

''If we start seeing disasters one after the other, I think that would be … when countries would suddenly start acting. Now that might be very late in the day, but perhaps it is already very late … it's getting very, very late.''


No comments: