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Island hopping

November 12, 2008
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The Maldives is just 1.5m (5ft) above sea-level on average

The Maldives is just 1.5m (5ft) above sea-level on average

Honeymooners and the monied have always known about The Maldives, a luxurious dream for ‘civilians’ and a make-do holiday destination for celebrities not wealthy enough to afford their own tropical island. But this time last year, the tiny republic of sandy islands and atolls jumped from glossy brochures into the global consciousness because of climate change. Yesterday, a new president was sworn in, and he has a novel idea for dealing with these troubles.

The flat, 380,000-strong state is the world’s lowest nation and at most risk of disappearing under the rising seas brought by climate change. At a meeting of similarly afflicted island states, held last November in the Maldives capital Male (the world’s most densely populated city), former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom issued a Declaration on the Human Dimension of Global Climate Change in which he stated that the onus is on the world to provide for the human rights (including a right to land) of Maldives citizens. Climate change, he pointed out, is a global problem stemming from international emissions to which his nation had made negligible contributions.

In June, at a United Nations meeting in Geneva, Gayoom followed up with an Imperative to Act, in which he talked about ‘climate justice’, meaning that rich countries should assure a sustainable future for populations vulnerable to climate change.

Yesterday was an historic occasion for the Maldives: their first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was sworn in. Nasheed, who was tortured as a political prisoner and spent much of his adult life campaigning for human rights, has promised to champion equal opportunities for all citizens. And that includes their right to a safe place to live. Climate models predict sea-level rises of 60cm by the end of this century – alarming news for a country in which the highest point is little over 2 metres. Nasheed plans to prioritise environmental causes, talking of turning his state into a solar powerhouse by installing large numbers of photovoltaic panels. He’s rejected his predecessor’s plans to extract oil from below the country’s waters.

Most interestingly, Nasheed talked this week about creating a sovereign wealth fund to buy land in India or Sri Lanka (or even Australia) to relocate the Maldives population. It’s a fascinating idea (described nicely in this article), but one that raises all sorts of issues not least the constitutional difficulties of creating a state within a state. And then there’s the money. The plan is to buy the land with revenues from tourism, but although these are plentiful – 90% of the country’s GDP depends to some extent on tourism – the Maldives is poor and already relies on handouts from the International Monetary Fund. And what about when the tourists don’t want to come to a disappearing island?

Where should the Maldives repeople? Culturally, India or Sri Lanka make sense, but both struggle to feed and water their own growing populations. Australia is mooted as an alternative because of the land available there, but I can’t see the Aussies agreeing to an autonomous state within its borders – they haven’t exactly welcomed refugees from other nearby islands. “We want to stay together. We don’t want to lose out culture,” Nasheed says. “But we also don’t want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.”

Can paradise lost become paradise regained elsewhere? It’s an issue that other island peoples living with encroaching oceans, coastal erosion, shrinking groundwater, and worsening reefs and fishing conditions will soon have to face up to. Tuvalu, Bangladesh’s Bhola Island, Papua New Guinea’s Carteret island, Kiribati, Fiji and the Pacific atolls are all on the list.

The seas will rise, that much is certain. But how the world will deal with its climate refugees from the Maldives to Alsaska remains to be seen.

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