President of Maldives Keeps His Head Above Water

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The Republic of Maldives, a popular tourist destination in the Indian Ocean, has drawn attention in recent months because its average altitude is 1.5 meters–alarmingly close to predictions of climate-change-induced sea level rise by the end of this century. As a result of its precarious position, the nation has been extensively involved in preparing for anticipated climate changes. It also has taken a proactive stance toward slowing climate change by reducing its emission of climate-warming greenhouse gases to the global atmosphere. Here, President Mohamed Nasheed, who famously held a cabinet meeting 6 meters underwater in 2009 to pass a resolution calling for action at the Copenhagen climate change talks, discusses the Maldives’ response to the threat of climate change. This interview is being simultaneously published online by Utne Reader and Momentum magazine.

When and how did you first become aware of the threat of climate change to the Maldives?

I used to be a journalist when I was in my 20s. In those days, the Maldives was a pretty strict authoritarian regime and you certainly couldn’t talk or write about politics without ending up in jail. So I used to write articles about environmental issues, which were tolerated by the regime. I have visited almost every island in the Maldives and I have snorkeled or dived off most of our coral reefs, so I have seen how the country has changed and understand how it could change very radically in the future because of climate change.

In what ways do you anticipate climate change will affect the Maldives?

There is no greater threat to the Maldives than that posed by the climate crisis. The best available science predicts that sea levels will rise 0.5 to 2 meters by the end of the 21st century, assuming global warming increases average temperatures by 4 degrees Celsius. Our islands are on average just 1.5 meters above the ocean, so even a 0.5 meter rise in sea level will be catastrophic. If sea levels rise by 2 meters, we will have to abandon the Maldives and find a new home on higher land abroad.

Has your country already experienced any impacts of climate change?

Climate change increases sea levels, which increases the likelihood of coastal erosion. Climate change also changes weather patterns and makes severe storms more likely. Many islands in the Maldives suffer from coastal erosion and seawater contamination of the freshwater lens. It is difficult to say with complete accuracy how much of this erosion and contamination is caused by climate change. What we can say is that climate change will make these problems much, much worse over the course of this century, if carbon dioxide pollution is not reduced. Climate change also threatens our coral reefs. Carbon pollution is increasing ocean temperatures and adding extra carbon dioxide to the oceans, making them more acidic. If ocean temperatures rise too high, or the sea becomes too acidic, corals die. For example, in 1998 a particularly strong El Niño caused sea temperatures to spike in the Maldives, killing 98 percent of all the corals in North Male’ atoll.

What are the people of the Maldives doing to prepare for climate change?

We are building sea walls, revetments and shore protection to protect the islands from erosion and storm surges. The capital island, Male’, is surrounded by a 2 meter sea wall, which protected the island from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. So, at least in the medium term, sea walls can protect us from the stronger storm surges and more violent weather patterns that climate change will bring. Sea walls and heavy infrastructure projects are extremely expensive, however, and we have 1,190 islands, of which 300 are inhabited or are tourist resorts. We cannot afford to build a sea wall around every island community. The government is therefore looking at soft engineering to protect the islands. These soft engineering methods include protecting each island’s coral reef, which acts as a natural water-breaker, and looking after shoreline vegetation such as mangroves, which reduce beach erosion.

What are the people of the Maldives doing to reduce the threat of climate change?

The Maldives has announced a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2020–which means a 100 percent reduction in carbon dioxide levels by the end of this decade. This is the toughest mitigation target of any country submitted under the UN Copenhagen Accord. In part, the Maldives has chosen this path to prod other countries into action. If we can reduce our carbon emissions so radically, we believe bigger countries can be equally ambitious. Environmental considerations are only part of the reason for adopting carbon neutrality, however. The Maldives is Asia’s most energy insecure nation. We rely on imported oil to power our entire economy. As such, we are at the mercy of the volatile oil price, over which we have no control. For example, recent oil price hikes over the last six months are costing the Maldives over $300,000 per day in extra fuel bills. For a country of 350,000 people, this is a huge burden. We are dangerously exposed to oil price rises.For us, going carbon neutral and aggressively introducing renewable energy is necessary for our future prosperity and economic development. Over the past year, government economists have been crunching the numbers and we believe we can provide 80 percent of an average island’s electricity through renewable energy–solar, wind and batteries–without increasing people’s electricity bills. We will start to roll out these new power systems across the country this year.

What is your reaction to the agreement reached as part of the Cancún climate change conference to provide international adaptation aid to least-developed nations threatened by climate change?

The Maldives welcomed the Cancun agreements. We felt that these agreements built on the modest success achieved at the Copenhagen talks. The Cancun Agreements earmark billions of dollars of climate aid for poor, vulnerable countries so they can adapt to climate change. To be honest, we will believe this when we see it. All too often, big pledges of aid are made but rarely distributed to those in need. The Maldives will continue to plan for adaptation with the modest income that we have and we will work with reliable partners that have already provided us help, such as Denmark. If we are given further international assistance, then all well and good, but we are not holding our breath.

Mary Hoff is managing editor of Momentum, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

Image by Mohamed Ali, courtesy of the President’s Office, Republic of Maldives.

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