BE2C2 Report (updated)– Maldives is on the front line of climate change, fighting rising seas.
A tropical paradise spread over almost 1200 islands in north-south direction — a bird’s eye view depicts the island as a cluster, in saber-like formation at the crosspoint of Indian ocean and Arabian sea, and half hour away by air to its neighbor Sri Lanka and 45-minutes from the southern tip of India.
The Indian ocean island has been attracting world attention. It’s been facing a rise in sea levels and the bleaching of its coral reefs – “perils that made it a poster child for the consequences of climate change,” the Natural Science magazine wrote.
Back in 2009 and, five years after the Tsunami of 2004 devastated most of its coral reefs, the entire Maldives government made an eye-catching plea for climate change action by holding the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, donned in scuba gear.
Following the 2004 tsunami, overspending (by means of overprinting of local currency rufiyaa), unemployment, corruption, and increasing drug use taxed the economy.
The 30-minute cabinet meeting held six meters below sea-level was intended to show what the future could hold for the Maldives. The 350,000 inhabitants of the country live on coral islands an average of only 2.1 meters above the ocean.
Ministers communicated using hand signals and white boards as they signed a document calling on all countries to cut their emissions.
It read: ‘We must unite in a world war effort to halt further temperature rises. Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth.
‘We have to have a better deal. We should be able to come out with an amicable understanding that everyone survives. If Maldives can’t be saved today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world.’
The then President Nasheed announced plans for a fund to buy a new homeland for his people if the 1,192 coral islands are submerged – an idea which did not find much traction, according to reports.
The former president reportedly considered locations in Sri Lanka and India due to cultural and climate similarities, and as far away as Australia.
Fast-forward, the government under President Abdulla Yameen is determined for the nation to stay put and resist the rising seas with geoengineering projects.
The paradigm shift has however put Mr. Yameen’s intiative to test amid geopolitics given the country’s geostrategic location.
Maldives’ proximity to the east-west shipping lane makes it the first land stop specially for China which exports goods valuing over $2 trillion a year. Westbound, ships carrying at least 60 to 80 percent of Chinese goods pass by the northern tip of the atoll. A similar economic opportunity abounds with eastward ships sailing to Southeast Asia and Australia from the Middle East and Africa.
“If the atoll is developed as being planned, the island nation could fetch billions and make its inhabitants stay put — engineering the effects of climate change to its advantage,” Maldives’ Ambassador in Riyadh Mr. Abdullah Hameed said.
Topping the challenge is empowerment of Maldives’ centuries-old socio-cultural-religious lifestyle — 96 percent are Muslims. Fishing and tourism are major economic activities — and “plan to establish offshore oil and gas infrastructure, ports, tourist resorts, etc. have attracted worldwide bidders,” the ambassador added.
The key to the new strategy, according to Mr. Abdullah Hameed, is leasing out islands and using the money to reclaim, fortify and even build new islands. “People living on smaller lower-lying islands could then be relocated to more flood-resistant islands when needed.”
One of those is the City of Hope being built on an artificial island called Hulhumale, near the capital Male, the magazine wrote. To build it, a state-owned company is pumping sand from surrounding atolls and depositing it on shallow reefs that surround the original lagoon. It is being fortified with walls 3 meters above sea level — which is higher than the highest natural island at only 2.5 meters above the sea.
Much of the island still looks like a construction site with mountains of sand piled up, but when finished in 2023 it will be able to accommodate about 130,000 people.
Eight such islands have already been built, and three more are planned.
“Reclaiming islands is the real solution to challenges thrown up by climate change, not leaving the country,” said Shiham Adam, director of the Maldives Marine Research Center.
“Development and reclaiming of islands are necessary. People must have land to live on and they must have jobs,” Adam said. “It is possible to reclaim any island. We have seen that it takes just four weeks to reclaim about 24 hectares of land.”
“All you have to do is bring the dredgers, suck sand and pump it on the low-lying land in shallow waters,” Adam says. “It takes four weeks to build the island and a couple more to put boulders around to stabilize it.”
That requires billions in investment from global financial institutions, sovereign wealth funds, and deft handling of politics, economic diplomacy, Mr. Hameed said.
In line with this grand scheme, the Maldives government is in negotiations with Saudi Arabia to lease Faafu Atoll, consisting of 23 islands, for development, the magazine reported.
“We welcome any and all countries, global financial investors, institutions, and even private investors to take advantage of our investment-friendly policies, Mr. Hameed said, while clarifying that it’s not just the Kingdom and China taking interest, but several other countries are looking at making long-term investments.
It could get about $10 billion – more than three times the GDP of the Maldives – from the deal, but will need to relocate about 4000 people, the magazine wrote.
Although the islands’ population has been offered homes for free in bigger towns, some are still protesting the plan. Government officials said no one will be relocated against their wish.
“It is expected that the atoll if developed, for example, as an economic city with its own international airport, the concept would enhance tourism, maritime commerce and connectivity,” the ambassador added.
The Maldives government is also planning for 50 more tourist resorts to be opened by 2018, according to the ambassador. “Tourism with resorts acting as natural reserves can be the saviors of the Maldives.”