Picture this: pristine white beaches stretching as far as the eye can see, palm trees swaying gently in the breeze, the scent of coconut in the air and transparent water sparkling under an azure sky. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it. Well the tropical paradise does exist but all is not perfection in this particular haven, for the islands of the Maldives are sinking – fast.
Heaven on Earth
The Maldives, a collection of 1,200 islands and coral atolls are situated in the Indian Ocean 500 miles off the tip of India. Famed for their sandy beaches and amazing diving, they generate a multi-billion pound tourist industry as holiday seekers flock to this little bit of Heaven on Earth.
But the Maldives are fighting their own private nightmare because 80% of the islands are only 1 metre above sea level and the sea level is rising. In fact the highest point on the Maldives is less than 2.5 metres and at current estimates, the sea is rising at a rate of 0.9cm a year. This means that by the end of the century, the islands could be uninhabitable.
The cause of this rapid sea rise is global warming. Whilst the industrial nations of the world release colossal tonnage of CO2 emissions each year in a bid to increase their own comfort and wealth, the environmental fallout for the 360,000 inhabitants of the Maldives is the loss of their homeland.
It works like this: As we pump out gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it forms an insulating layer around the Earth, thus trapping the heat from the sun (the greenhouse effect) and preventing any surplus heat from escaping. This in turn, causes the great air conditioner of the Earth – the polar ice cap – to melt and expand as temperatures rise, so raising sea levels.
At the moment, 200 of the Maldive islands are inhabited but even now, people are choosing to vacate their homes in preference to flooding. In Kandholhudhoo for instance, one of the highly populated northern islands, 60% of residents have volunteered to evacuate their homes during the next decade rather than continue to put up with the constant flooding their houses experience as tidal surges wash over them every couple of weeks. The trend to evacuate is only set to increase as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels may rise by between 25 and 58cm by 2100.
It’s not that Maldivians are taking things lying down. They were the first country to embrace the Kyoto Protocol, which sets targets for industrialised countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses, and they lobby hard at every intergovernmental environmental summit. Persuading the political might of countries such as the USA to be sympathetic to their cause however, is a long and uphill battle.
Saving up for a New Home
Meanwhile, the Maldivian government are doing all they can to safeguard their own future. With profits raised from the buoyant tourist industry, they will be channeling a significant proportion of those funds into investing in land on which to re-house future generations. Current considered locations include India and Australia.
To augment this fund, the government has also launched an initiative to enable the islands to be carbon-neutral by 2020. They hope that by using renewable energy forms such as solar and wind power; they can attract foreign research and raise awareness of their plight. By investing in this kind of enterprise they hope to alleviate the worst effects of global warming for the islands in the short term as well as helping to spread the message to other nations that the threat of climate change is a very real one for all.
In the meantime, a 3-metre flood defence wall has been built around the densely packed capital of Male to help protect the 100,000 residents who live there. Other initiatives include planting forests to prevent beach erosion, restricting building, maintaining coral reefs (which create a natural protection against tidal surges), and making the study of environmental science compulsory in every school.
Perhaps those of us, who can only dream about living in a tropical paradise such as the Maldives, would do well to listen to the wise words of Maldivian president Mohammed Nashid who states: “My country is in peril but I don’t accept that we are doomed. If the world unites against carbon pollution and embraces green development, we can bring the climate crisis under control…every country stands to lose if we don’t curb carbon pollution. So, in a sense, we are all Maldivians.”