Global Warming Paradise (Soon to be) Lost

The tiny island nation of the Maldives is in trouble. If global warming continues, say scientists, the country could sink beneath the ocean within 100 years. The government is doing all it can to fight the sea, but the fate of the Maldives is ultimately a global responsibility.

By Scott Lamb in Berlin

In 100 years, these beautiful islands may all be underwater.

In 100 years, these beautiful islands may all be underwater.

Pick up a standard map of the world and chances are decent that the Maldives won't even be on it. The archipelago nation made up of 1,200 tiny islands -- ranked 175th in the world for population (330,000) and 167th in terms of gross domestic product ($660 million) -- is known to most of the world, if it is known at all, as a tourist destination. With a total area about the size of Washington D.C., no major resources beyond its beautiful scenery and a location of little strategic importance, the island nation has never played much of a role in global affairs. And yet its very existence is becoming a global responsibility.

Consisting of some of the lowest islands on earth -- its highest point is only 2.4 meters (7.8 feet) above the surface of the ocean -- the Maldives are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by global warming, and unless the world community can effectively curtail carbon dioxide emissions, the little island paradise may soon be lost.

"In the worst case scenario, we'll have to move," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Shaheed. The Maldives government has various schemes to save the islands from the sea, ranging from consolidating the population onto several main islands to artificially raising some areas. These plans may help to save the country in the short term, but, Shaheed says, "we are mindful that, in the long run, the only way would be through a global effort."

Threatened shores

Future maps may no longer have to worry about the Maldives. The island nation may disappear entirely.

Future maps may no longer have to worry about the Maldives. The island nation may disappear entirely.

On these tropical islands, where everyone lives within minutes of the sea and almost no one owns a car, the spectre of global warming from carbon-dioxide emissions may seem distant -- yet nowhere is the threat of the rising tide more real. According to the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sea level is projected to rise between 9 and 88 centimeters (3.5 and 35 inches) by the year 2100. "If the higher end of that scale is reached, the sea could overflow the heavily populated coastlines of such countries as Bangladesh, cause the disappearance of some nations entirely (such as the island state of the Maldives), foul freshwater supplies for billions of people and spur mass migrations," the IPCC report said. A sea-level-rise of three feet -- the high end of IPCC estimates -- would mean that 80 percent of the Maldives would sink beneath the ocean.

Not surprisingly, the Maldives was one of the first countries to sign on to the Kyoto agreement. The treaty, which goes into effect on Wednesday of this week, seeks to reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to stop the process of global warming. It is this warming, which causes thermal expansion -- water volume increases as it gets warmer -- in addition to melting glaciers and polar ice caps, that could spell the end of the archipelago. The Maldives has desperately -- and so-far fruitlessly -- tried to convince the United States, responsible for one quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, to sign on. Where the Maldives have failed politically though, they might succeed only as an example of the powerful negative effects humans have on the environment.

The Maldives is doing everything it can to avoid that distinction. In January this year, the government began implementing their "Safe Islands" project and have identified five main islands that will be designed to resist the rising sea and provide a new, safe home for Maldivians. If necessary, the government has even proposed artificially raising the elevation of some islands to keep them high and dry. And near the capital city of Male, according to Shaheed, a land reclamation project is making an island from scratch, which could eventually be home to up 50,000 people, a huge percentage of the nation's population. "We are hoping to consolidate the population and create stronger and more sturdy structures," says Shaheed. But no matter how sturdy the new buildings are, an unchecked rising sea will still be a threat to the islands in the long term.

Tsunami spurs change

While such projects have been proposed in the past, it is the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster that has provided the impetus this time around. When the gigantic wave hit the Maldives, it didn't just strike the shoreline. In some places, the wave swept over entire islands, destroying everything in its path and washing away topsoil vital for the country's mango, papaya and banana groves. Most of the 200 inhabited islands are little more than beach front, and some estimates say that 40 percent of the country was underwater at some point. That the wave only killed 82 people and left 15,000 homeless is due in part to the country's population density: The majority of its almost 350,000 citizens live in Male, where, thanks to an enormous sea wall, the flood damaged some buildings but left most of the city intact.

Low-lying islands cannot withstand the rising sea.

Low-lying islands cannot withstand the rising sea.

The havoc wreaked by the tsunami has gone a long way toward convincing a recalcitrant population that the sea can present a real threat. The government had been trying for years to convince people to leave many of the tiny, low islands to move to bigger and safer places, to no avail; a scheme similar to the Safe Islands project in the 1960s failed due to concerns about the effects on traditional island culture. That may now be changing. "After the tsunami, our plans got a boost," says Shaheed. "People are now more willing to move to larger islands." Most of the refugees have been permanently relocated to Male and so far, 12 islands, like the once densely populated northern island Kandholhudhoo, have been all but abandoned.

The tsunami also got the world's attention. The international community is suddenly interested in the tiny nation and some of the huge pledges that the world made in the days following the disaster are making their way there. And while the loss of life may have been minor when compared with Indonesia, the impact on the economy has been huge, and nearly one third of the population was directly affected. The UN has even started an "adopt an island" program, where companies may pay to help rebuild homes on a specific island.

In the world's hands

But the destruction caused by the tsunami's waters may just be a sign of things to come. Surviving a tidal wave is one thing; combating an inexorably rising sea is something else. If the sea continues to rise, even the most elaborate plans will only be temporary solutions. There is only so much the country can do to protect itself.

Furthermore, even minor rises in sea levels would have huge effects on the country's beaches, and the disruption to the tourist trade would ruin the economy long before the islands became uninhabitable. Ninety percent of the government's tax revenues come from import duties and tourism-related taxes.

The government knows that it can't count on the world's good intentions, and holds out hope that the Safe Islands project and other initiatives will ensure the future for the Maldives for some time to come. "Technology has always surprised humanity," Shaheed says.

But ultimately, the fate of the islands is in the world's hands. It cannot battle the sea forever, and the only long-term option will be to abandon the islands altogether. "That," says Shaheed, "will be an admission of defeat, not only for us, but for the global community."


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