Vulnerability and changing fortunes

J J Robinson

The delicate environmental balance of the Maldives islands – whose main protection against the waves comes from the surrounding coral reefs – is threatened by a wide range of man-made risks.

It was the underwater cabinet meeting held by former President Mohamed Nasheed in 2009 that really propelled both him and the Maldives on to the world stage as a paragon of the environmental movement. An iconic image of Nasheed wearing a suit, sitting at his desk waist-deep in a lagoon was then co-opted by filmmakers of The Island President, released earlier this year to much acclaim.

“If we can’t stop the seas rising, if you agree to a two-degree rise in temperature, you are actually agreeing to kill us. What is the point in having a democracy if you don’t have a country?” Nasheed asks, in the film’s introduction.

So successful was his message that ‘The Maldives: See it before it sinks’ became the country’s de facto marketing slogan. Climate assistance funding increased as governments sought to improve their own ecocredentials at home. And journalists came from all corners of the globe to film Malé’s rubbish dump at nearby Thilafushi (known locally as ‘Rubbish Island’), contrasting its apocalyptic landscape with the postcardperfect resort islands.

Few made the effort to travel to other islands, where the reality is somewhat more complicated. Most local beaches are scattered with rubbish and waste, despite 74 waste-management facilities across the country lying largely unused, donated by foreign agencies at a cost of millions of dollars. The problem is cultural, and is evident in the language: the word for ‘beach’ in Dhivehi, gondu dhoh, also means ‘rubbish dump’.

Beach erosion is another complicated challenge. Development such as harbours, water villas, land reclamation or even something as innocuous as a wooden jetty alters the flow of water and can result in beach erosion threatening houses and structures along the shore on other parts of the island. Some smaller local islands have had to be evacuated. Islands also naturally change shape with the seasons, forcing the resorts to conduct extensive engineering and use sand-pumping to retain the much sought-after beaches.

The most immediate global warming-related threat comes from the rising sea temperatures; these cause coral bleaching, which leads to a dead, skeletal, colourless reef that eventually crumbles, leaving the islands unprotected. The El Niño climate event of 1998 killed more than 90 percent of shallow water coral in the Maldives, and a second prolonged rise in sea temperature in 2010 killed that which was only just starting to recover.

The effect is compounded by human impact. Resorts dump the remains of their food in the sea, upsetting the nutrient balance and risking algal blooms that smother the coral, while dredging work covers vast areas with sedimentation and similarly suffocates the reefs. Many resorts also carry out mosquito fogging, using chemicals that are highly toxic to marine life, and empty their chlorinated swimming pools into the ocean.

There have been some environmental successes, such as a ban on shark fishing, but Nasheed’s successor, President Mohamed Waheed, is not gripped by the same environmental fervour. “The good news is that the Maldives is not about to disappear,” he told a recent conference of business people in Sri Lanka.

The new environment minister, Dr Mariyam Shakeela, has proposed a voluntary tax on tourists to try to raise $100 million towards carbon neutrality, but implementation will be controversial given the prospect of steep sales tax increases and the Maldives’s existing reputation as an already expensive destination.

President Waheed told the Rio+20 summit in June this year: “I believe most of the tourists who come to the Maldives are environmentally conscious and quite happy to make a contribution towards making the Maldives carbon neutral.”

Renewable energy is an economic necessity for the Maldives. Oil used for power generation and driving the country’s fishing and transport fleet was imported at a cost of $240 million in 2011, a figure expected to hit $350 million in 2012 – a quarter of the country’s entire GDP.

Nasheed’s energy advisor, Mike Mason, a former mining engineer and early pioneer of carbon trading, who was one of many environmental experts pulled into Nasheed’s orbit, was on the brink of transforming the country’s energy space at the time of the transfer of power. He had lined up $200 million in solar energy investment by soliciting the World Bank for bank guarantees and sovereign risk insurance to lower the cost of capital for energy investors. The project – described by the World Bank as one of the most “exciting and transformative” of its kind – was due to be signed into existence on 7 February, but as confidence fell, investors pulled out.

Nasheed’s climate change advisor, UKbased author, journalist and environmental activist Mark Lynas, has resigned along with Mason. “I think that the Maldives is basically a has-been in international climate circles now,” Lynas said recently. “I see no prospect of it achieving Nasheed’s 2020 carbon-neutral goal, even if that goal is still official policy.”

About the author:

J J Robinson is Editor of Minivan News, the main English-language news service in the Maldives


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