To visit the Maldives is to witness the slow death of a nation. For as well as being blessed with sun-kissed paradise islands and pale, white sands, this tourist haven is cursed with mounting evidence of an environmental catastrophe.
To the naked eye, the signs of climate change are almost imperceptible, but government scientists fear the sea level is rising up to 0.9cm a year.
Since 80% of its 1,200 islands are no more than 1m above sea level, within 100 years the Maldives could become uninhabitable. The country’s 360,000 citizens would be forced to evacuate.
The Maldives’ survival as a sovereign nation is truly at stake.
No wonder it was the first country to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol, which sets targets for cuts in industrialised countries’ greenhouse gas emissions.
No wonder that Male, the capital, is surrounded by a 3m-high (9.8ft) wall, which took 14 years to construct at a cost of $63m. Unable to foot the bill themselves, the government happily accepted aid from Japan, which paid for 99% of the cost.
But the wall offers protection for just one of the Maldives’ 200 inhabited islands – and then only against tidal surges rather than the rising sea level, the longer-term threat.
In Kandholhudhoo, a densely-populated island in the north of the Maldives, 60% of residents have volunteered to evacuate over the next 15 years – those remaining behind will eventually be compelled to do the same.
Tidal surges flood their homes every fortnight, and recently hammered a 3m (9.8ft) hole in their concrete flood defences.
The country’s fishermen no longer use the “Nakiy”, a centuries-old weather guide based on stellar constellations which climate change has made all but irrelevant.
The weather here is becoming more volatile and less predictable. The alignment of the stars no longer offers much guidance.
The Maldives government is trying to alleviate the worst effects of climate change.
It is encouraging forestation to prevent beach erosion and is backing a plan to clean litter and debris from the country’s coral reefs – a natural barrier against tidal surges which changes to the fragile eco-system have placed in peril.
Environmental science is taught in every school, and given the same importance as writing and arithmetic. All new resorts are subject to a rigorous environmental impact study and developers are allowed to build on only 20% of the islands.
But the efforts are aimed at mitigation rather than prevention.
As policy-makers in Male are depressingly aware, their ultimate fate lies in the hands of politicians in Delhi, Beijing, Moscow and Washington.
In June, the President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, wrote to the US President George W Bush, in a rather optimistic attempt to persuade him to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. So far he is yet to receive a response.
This minnow of a nation faces a mammoth task – to persuade members of the US government, whether officials in the Bush administration or lawmakers on Capitol Hill, to make long-term decisions from a global perspective, rather than short-term choices based on national self-interest.
The Maldives can exert moral pressure and press its strong scientific case. But not much more.
So come here fast, before it disappears. This is a paradise faced with extinction.
Source: BBC News