Paradise in a perilous state

 

Ahead of next week’s UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, FRANK McDONALD, Environment Editor, visits some of the 1,200 low-lying islands across the Equator that make up the Maldives – a honeymooners’ haven and an environmental disaster in waiting

A SEAPLANE REALLY is the only way to see the Maldives. Our 17-seat Trans Maldivian Twin Otter, en route from Malé to the exclusive Soneva Fushi resort in Baa Atoll, gave us incredible views of the islands, strewn like emeralds in the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

There is nowhere quite like it – islands of dense tropical greenery fringed by white sand and bright rings of turquoise water over the coral reefs, all set in aquamarine lagoons. It’s all so beautiful and yet so fragile, for the Maldives are in the frontline of climate change.

This extraordinary archipelago barely registers on maps. Many of the islands are no bigger than specks. It is Robinson Crusoe territory, a paradise that attracts so many honeymooners, and it could be lost unless progress is made at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

The country’s democratically-elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, held an underwater cabinet meeting in October to dramatise the threat facing one of the lowest-lying nations on Earth. It was a media stunt, of course, and it worked, getting television airtime almost everywhere. Nasheed, who has been president of the Maldives for the past 14 months, had already hit the headlines for delivering an impassioned speech at the UN climate change summit in New York a month earlier, appealing to world leaders to take urgent action before it was too late.

“For the Maldives, climate change is no vague or distant irritation but a clear and present danger to our survival,” he said, describing his nation as “the canary in the world’s coal mine”. If things go on as usual, “we will not live. We will die. Our country will not exist.” As Dr Charles Erhart, of Care International, said at the UN climate talks in Bonn last June, “we’ve never before had to deal with disappearing states”. Sure, countries have disappeared off the map, but none in recorded history has yet disappeared off the face of the earth.

According to Maldives vice-president Dr Mohamed Waheed, “about a third of the country is facing severe erosion in coastal areas”. In an interview with The Irish Times at the presidential offices in Malé, he says storm surges were making climate change a “survival issue” in vulnerable areas.

‘ONE OF THE first anti-government demonstrations I had to face was on an island where houses were being eroded underneath, and people were afraid they would fall into the sea. So it has become a huge political issue, and the demand for us to protect people’s homes and livelihoods is a central concern.” Dr Waheed says agriculture is “no longer possible” on some of the islands because fresh water is being contaminated by salt water intrusion. “We have had to provide emergency fresh water to about half the islands in the country and this is costing us millions of rufiyaa.” (€1 equals 1,945 rufiyaa.)

The fish catch in Maldives waters – the main foreign exchange earner before the development of tourism – has been declining consistently over the past six years, due to rising water temperatures, he believes.

Coral reefs were severely bleached in 1998 because the sea became too warm for a period of weeks. The reefs, which help to moderate monsoon storms, are recovering – although evidence of bleaching can still be seen. “We have some of the most beautiful reefs in the world, with a myriad of life,” the vice-president says. “It would be an irreparable loss to the Maldives, and to everyone, if we were to lose them.”

I found out what he meant at Soneva Fushi when I went snorkelling with Anke Hofmeister, the resort’s German-born marine biologist and environmental manager. As soon as I put my face under the water, it was another world – fish of every shape and size and colour swimming amid the equally amazing coral reefs.

Other guests at the resort had encountered Manta rays and were awestruck by the experience. I was startled when I saw a huge Moray eel eyeing me as he lurked between two corals just a couple of metres below. I could see his bared teeth and thought he was going to pounce, but Hofmeister assured me he wouldn’t.

She is committed to making Soneva Fushi environmentally sustainable and “carbon neutral” by 2011 – at least for the carbon load generated on the resort island itself. But this is just a fraction of the total, if all the flights taken by its guests are taken into account; a wind farm in south India is planned, to offset them.

Resorts are frighteningly expensive, with €800 per room per night not unusual. Most of them operate in a different time zone to the rest of the Maldives – an hour ahead, so the sun rises and sets later, to facilitate guests. It’s a surreal world; in Soneva Fushi’s desalination plant, they play Mozart to “energise” the water.

What worries Maldivians most in the longer term is sea-level rise. “For us, this is an existential issue,” Dr Waheed says. “Based on current projections, if we don’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions substantially worldwide, sea-level rise could submerge most of our islands over the next 100 years or so.” The more exposed southern and western flanks of Malé, the capital island, are now protected by a breakwater of precast “tetrapods”, three metres high, constructed over a period of 12 years. Costing $63 million (€42 million), the project was funded by Japan in solidarity with fellow Asians.

Its effect has been to make Malé resemble a sea fortress, and not without reason. Ali Rilwan, founder of the Bluepeace environmental group, recalls that high swells in 1986 flooded a third of the city: “They started building the breakwater after that – previously, Malé had a wall only to protect against pirates.”

THE TSUNAMI of December 2004 was a terrifying snapshot of the dangers that could lie ahead. It caused widespread destruction in the Maldives, leaving 100 people dead or missing, 12,000 displaced and three islands evacuated. “Millions of dollars had to be spent on new homes for the refugees,” says Rilwan.

However, he doesn’t agree that coastal erosion is entirely due to climate change: “From time immemorial, erosion has been endemic here. In the past, people moved from one island to another as slight changes in current shifted the sand, making some islands bigger and others disappear. It’s a dynamic process.” Rilwan, whose day job is as a civil servant in the foreign ministry, believes some of the erosion is “caused by coastal modifications, such as building harbours and blasting channels” – in some cases to cater for tourist resorts being developed without adequate safeguards to protect the environment.

“Over the past two years, we’ve stopped being scared to come out and tell the world what’s going on here in terms of species depletion, waste disposal and other environmental issues,” he says. “We get warning e-mails from travel agents accusing us of ‘killing the tourism industry’ and even being an ‘enemy of the state’.” He is also sceptical that the Maldives government is doing much to “mainstream” climate change in its domestic policies while being “very vocal” about it internationally over the past 20 years, since the Alliance of Small Island States – those most vulnerable to global warming – was formed at a meeting in Malé.

Most of the country’s solid waste is burned on an artificial island called Thilafushi, west of the capital, with an endless parade of rubbish trucks going there on open ro-ro ferries. The island also has a concentration of industrial activities as well as a build-up of toxic heavy metals from years of dumping.

Another artificial island, Hulhumalé, was conceived in the 1990s as a solution to overcrowding in Malé. Billed as “the most ambitious land reclamation and urban development project undertaken by the government of Maldives to date,” it is built two metres above sea level, to take account of global warming.

ON THE NORTHERN and eastern flanks of Malé, between the capital and its international airport on Hulhulé island, the sea is a relatively tranquil lagoon; the jumble of high-rise buildings on Malé’s harbourfront resemble a miniature Lower Manhattan. Numerous ships are anchored offshore, waiting to unload their cargo. The water is buzzing with small ferry boats, motor launches and luxury yachts, all operated with remarkable agility. On the long quayside, fishing boats are unloaded by hand near the bustling market.

Last March, President Nasheed announced that the Maldives aimed to become “carbon neutral” within a decade by investing in wind turbines and solar panels to generate electricity as well as a biomass plant fuelled by burning coconut husks. At present, there are no solar panels on the sun-drenched roofs of buildings in Malé.

Vice-president Dr Waheed said the solar energy programme would start with government buildings, using Japanese technology. A contract is being finalised with General Electric to build the Maldives’s first wind farm, with a capacity of 75 megawatts, and a Dutch firm is in the running to build the proposed biomass plant.

But the country is facing an economic crisis, mainly because of the profligacy of its previous regime, and has had to call in the International Monetary Fund; no doubt the “structural adjustment” programme it devises will be painful. But Dr Waheed is grateful that it is also getting EU support for climate change adaptation. Tourism is now its main source of income, earning nearly $700 million (€470 million) last year – despite a drop in numbers due to the recession. The government gets nearly 29 per cent of it in revenue from a tourism tax, and it’s now preparing to supplement this with a “green tax” of $3 (€2) per tourist per day.

It will need every cent it can get if Nasheed is to advance his plan to create a sovereign wealth fund with the aim of buying a “homeland” elsewhere, as a fallback position in case the Maldives becomes uninhabitable as a result of climate change. But not everyone agrees this doomsday option is a good plan. “This is one of the oldest Asian civilisations, going back 3,000 to 4,000 years,” says Rilwan. “Those who want to migrate can do that. But we should be thinking about adaptation, rather than migration. If we can develop seven islands raised to a height of three metres, while preserving the coral reefs, we’d have dry land for a rainy day.”

Last month, at a vulnerable nations forum in Malé, Nasheed complained every country going to Copenhagen was seeking to keep their own emissions as high as possible. “This is the logic of the madhouse, a recipe for collective suicide,” he said. “We don’t want a global suicide pact. We want a global survival pact.”


Frank McDonald’s visit to the Maldives was made possible with a grant from Comhar, the Sustainable Development Council.

THE MALDIVES: HISTORY, GEOGRAPHY, SOCIETY

THE REPUBLIC OF Maldives is in the south Indian Ocean. Its national territory consists of 99 per cent water and just 1 per cent land – an archipelago of almost 1,200 coral islands grouped in 26 atolls that stretch 823km to cross the Equator.

Only 200 islands in the Maldives are inhabited. A further 90 are tourist resorts, paying rent to the government, and there are also some uninhabited “picnic islands” open to everyone. None of the islands is more than two metres above sea level.

Malé, the capital, is densely populated, with more than 100,000 people living on an island of less than 2sq km. The country’s total population is around 300,000, all of whom are Muslim; it is impossible for a non-Muslim to be a citizen.

At Malé’s Artificial Beach, the only one available to local people, women swim in full clothing, including hijabs (pictured right). But the country is not as restrictive as Saudi Arabia; young women can be seen driving Honda 125 scooters, the preferred means of transport.

The people of the Maldives converted from Buddhism to Islam in 1153, and the country was ruled by sultans until the Portuguese invaded in 1558. Liberated in 1573, the territory then fell under British influence and became a protectorate of the British empire in 1887.

Granted independence in 1965, the Maldives declared itself a republic three years later. From 1978 until 2008, the country was ruled by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a ruthless autocrat who had his opponents routinely imprisoned and tortured. Gayoom was defeated in the first free elections in October 2008 by Mohamed Nasheed, founder of the Maldivian Democratic Party; he had been jailed 20 times, tortured at least once and banished to Sri Lanka, before returning in 2005.

The language of the Maldives is Dhivehi, which has its roots in Sanskrit, though English is widely spoken. The country has both primary and secondary schools, but no university; anyone seeking a third-level education must go abroad.

It is illegal for a Maldivian to consume alcohol, because it is banned by the Koran. All luggage brought in by tourists is scanned at Malé airport for alcohol or drugs and any that is found is confiscated on arrival and returned on departure. Malé itself is a “dry” city; not even hotels can serve alcohol to guests from abroad. Only expatriates with special liquor licences can import alcohol, and 826 of them are entitled to bring in a total of 2,478 bottles of hard liquor and 49,560 cans of beer every month.

The independent Maldivian website minivannews.com, reported last month that the government intends to revoke these permits amid claims that some expats have been supplying booze to locals. Instead, it wants to give licences to some hotels. A parliamentary committee is considering whether hotels with more than 100 beds should be allowed to have a bar that would serve only foreigners. But even this has led to rallies by the opposition, which claims it “will cause serious harm to our society”.

Another committee is studying proposals to introduce heavy fines and even imprisonment for anyone attempting to build a church or place of worship for “false religions”, following reports that Christian weddings have been held at tourist resorts. Alcohol is available on the resort islands, provided it is served only to tourists by non-Maldivian staff – usually from south India, Nepal or Sri Lanka. It is expensive, however, because of hefty government levies and a large element of profiteering by resorts.

According to Minivan News, the government is trying to collect $103 million (€69 million) in rent and fines from 29 resorts, including 15 under construction. More than half the debt is owed by one resort being developed on the ecologically-sensitive Hudhufushi island.