Fighting A Losing Battle? The Maldives and Climate Change

Map of the Maldives Photo: Wikimedia CommonsIn the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the world’s lowest lying nation received a wake-up call. At no more than one and a half meters above sea level, the Republic of Maldives found more than 12,000 of its people displaced and several of its islands completely submerged below sea level. In a nation consisting of about 1200 islands, rising sea levels and expected increases in natural disasters  characterise the next big struggle for this young democracy: Climate Change.

Tsunami devastation in larger, harder hit countries overshadowed Maldivian disaster relief efforts. In Indonesia, an estimated 130,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. However, the tsunami dramatically affected the Maldivian government, which realized something would need to be done if they wanted a future for their country. Dr. Mahamood Shaugee, the Maldivian minister of education at the time, toured the devastation and noted that some of the islands would be completely uninhabitable unless they were rebuilt. However, for a fledgling democracy, rebuilding islands is difficult and expensive.

At the forefront of this battle is Mohamed Nasheed – the first democratically elected president of the Maldives who served from 2008 to the spring of this year. As the face of the democratic movement in the Maldives, Nasheed ousted Maumoon Abdul Guayoom who had previously been “elected” into presidential office for 30 consecutive years.

As Nasheed took office he began what his colleagues called a “Crusade on Global Warming”. Nasheed called on developed countries to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. He also organized environmental forums and meetings in collaboration with NGOs such as the global grassroots movement In his most public outcry he held an underwater cabinet session where he and his colleagues signed a declaration that was sent to the United Nations calling on developed countries to cut their carbon emissions.

However, Nasheed is not only relying on other nations to do the work. In 2009 he declared that the Maldives would be carbon neutral within a decade. In an interview he told the BBC, “We don’t want to sit around and blame others, we want to do whatever we can… if we can become carbon-neutral and come up with plans [to save the Maldives]… these plans also will serve as a blueprint for other nations to follow.”

Unfortunately, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were to cease tomorrow, scientists agree that sea level rise would be inevitable. Current estimates predict a one to two meter rise by 2100. With the highest island of the Maldives at one and a half meters above sea level, the country would be wiped out. As of today fourteen islands have already been abandoned due to massive erosion. Therefore, preparing for the worst seems to be the most plausible option.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed after the underwater Cabinet meeting Photo: Presidency Maldives’ photostream

Beyond trying to slow climate change, Nasheed considered using tourism revenue to buy land from nearby nations. This would be a type of insurance policy incase the global community fails to act against climate change. Investment in Sri Lanka and India is first on the list because of their similar climates, cultures and cuisines. However, the most feasible option is purchasing land from Australia’s vast unoccupied desert regions. On the other hand, the Australian option comes with obvious barriers to the Maldivian way of life, which are closely tied to fishing and agriculture.  

The beginning of 2012 opened with yet another blow to Maldivian climate efforts. After weeks of unrest and demonstrations Nasheed “voluntarily” resigned his presidency in February, later claiming that he was in fact ousted in a coup d’état. The current government, headed by the former vice president, denies these claims.

Despite profound obstacles from both within the Maldives and the international community the former president refuses to give up his fight for democracy and climate change. In an interview with NPR Nasheed stated, “It won’t be any good to have a democracy if we don’t have a country.” Only time will tell if democracy in the Maldives prevails, but in the meantime the international community holds the key to impacting climate change. If nothing is done to protect the Maldives in the near future, the country will likely cease to exist in its entirety. If this happens the world can instead expect to take on the responsibility of hundreds of thousands of climate refugees.



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