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Sea change: Why India needs lessons from Maldives to tackle climate crisis

Published : Jan 12, 2023 10:15 IST

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Sea change: Why India needs lessons from Maldives to tackle climate crisis

The island Landaa Giraavaru is located inside the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It houses the Marine Discovery Centre where injured marine animsls are rehabilitated and tourists are educated about the impacts of climate change.

The island Landaa Giraavaru is located inside the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It houses the Marine Discovery Centre where injured marine animsls are rehabilitated and tourists are educated about the impacts of climate change. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga

Small island nations beleaguered by climate change are adopting proactive measures to mitigate it.

One of the key outcomes of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) held in November 2022 was a landmark decision to establish and operationalise a loss and damage fund for vulnerable nations that face the brunt of natural disasters and loss of livelihoods as a result of global warming.

The traditional Maldivian boat called dhoni, once made solely of wood, was used only by the fisherfolk. These day, fiberglass is also used to make them and the boats are used for multiple purposes, including for passenger and cargo transport.
The traditional Maldivian boat called dhoni, once made solely of wood, was used only by the fisherfolk. These day, fiberglass is also used to make them and the boats are used for multiple purposes, including for passenger and cargo transport. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga
One of the most popular traditional dances of Maldives is Bodu (big) Beru (drum), which traces its origin to Africa. The dance is performed on special occasions like weddings. Here the dancers welcome the guests to the island.
One of the most popular traditional dances of Maldives is Bodu (big) Beru (drum), which traces its origin to Africa. The dance is performed on special occasions like weddings. Here the dancers welcome the guests to the island. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga

Low-lying island nations like Maldives are under severe threat as oceans warm and sea levels rise. In 2012, former President Mohamed Nasheed said: “If carbon emissions continue at the rate they are climbing today, my country will be under water in seven years.” Dr Heather Koldewey, a marine biologist and head of freshwater and marine water at the Zoological Society of London, echoes his fears.

Bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins are the wonders of the ocean, but with pollutants building up in the waters, they are not able to reproduce.
Bottlenose dolphins. Dolphins are the wonders of the ocean, but with pollutants building up in the waters, they are not able to reproduce. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga
Maldives’ coral reefs.
Maldives’ coral reefs. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga

“Even a few centimetres’ rise will make a huge impact on these islands. A fund will support the people from such countries. So many people have already been displaced by climate-related disasters and the number will only increase unless we implement solutions right away,” she said. “We talk about different ocean basins as if they are separate entities. But it is actually just one connected ocean,” she added. Climate impact does not stop at national borders when we think in terms of the oceans surrounding them—India, for instance, is as threatened as Maldives.

Islands of Maldives as seen from plane. Low-lying island nations like Maldives, which are just a few metres above the sea, are under severe threat as oceans warm and sea levels rise.
Islands of Maldives as seen from plane. Low-lying island nations like Maldives, which are just a few metres above the sea, are under severe threat as oceans warm and sea levels rise. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga

When I visited Maldives in September 2022, I was struck not just by its natural beauty but also by an uncomfortable sense of the submergence threat looming over it. A group of 1,192 coral islands arranged in a double chain of 26 atolls, Maldives witnessed severe bleaching of its corals in 1998 and 2016 due to seawater warming. According to Koldewey: “Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine for climate change.” Coral reefs protect island nations like Maldives, which cannot survive without them.

Sharks are vulnerable to climate change and poachers because they are slow-growing and don’t reproduce in large numbers.
Sharks are vulnerable to climate change and poachers because they are slow-growing and don’t reproduce in large numbers. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga

Baa Atoll in Maldives is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve site. Its Hanifaru Bay has the world’s largest gatherings of manta rays, which attract tourists in the thousands. The World Bank states that tourism is the biggest driver of the economy for Maldives. Preserving marine ecosystems is thus an immediate necessity for the country. “Even a place as protected as Baa Atoll has been impacted by climate change because the frequency of warmings is going up. By 2030 there might be annual bleaching events, which mean that the coral reefs wouldn’t get time to recover,” Koldeway said.

Manta rays are facing a multitude of threats, which are driving them towards extinction. In some areas of the Indian Ocean, local population has declined by as much as 98 per cent in the last 15 years and they are expected to become extinct in the next few years. Warming oceans are changing the dynamics of their primary food source, zooplankton. The changes include shifts in the timings of food availability. While manta rays might be able to adapt by moving to different feeding locations or feeding more often, they are killed by fishing, as bycatch and the effects of unregulated tourism” said Joanna Harris, project lead, Manta Trust, which conducts the Maldivian Manta Ray Project.
Manta rays are facing a multitude of threats, which are driving them towards extinction. In some areas of the Indian Ocean, local population has declined by as much as 98 per cent in the last 15 years and they are expected to become extinct in the next few years. Warming oceans are changing the dynamics of their primary food source, zooplankton. The changes include shifts in the timings of food availability. While manta rays might be able to adapt by moving to different feeding locations or feeding more often, they are killed by fishing, as bycatch and the effects of unregulated tourism” said Joanna Harris, project lead, Manta Trust, which conducts the Maldivian Manta Ray Project. | Photo Credit: Joanna Harris

Since 2005, Reefscapers, a marine consultancy company, has been working to restore coral reefs in Maldives. They take fragments of current living reefs from donor colonies and attach them to man-made structures to create artificial reefs. After three years, the structure provides new places for fish to thrive. Tourists sponsor frames, which help sustain livelihoods.

The artificial reefs created by Reefscapers.
The artificial reefs created by Reefscapers. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga
The artificial reef frame in the water.
The artificial reef frame in the water. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga

Like corals, other marine animals are in danger too. “Sea turtles have become icons for climate change because while they have been around for 110 million years, mostly females are being born these days due to warmer waters, skewing the sex ratio. Human intervention has made a huge impact on all species—even sharks, who are the predators of the ecosystem, are vulnerable,” Koldeway stated.

The Marine Discovery Centre rehabilitates marine species like sea turtles when they get caught in plastic nets and hurt their fins.
The Marine Discovery Centre rehabilitates marine species like sea turtles when they get caught in plastic nets and hurt their fins. | Photo Credit: Sweta Daga

Marianne Manuel, director of Dakshin Foundation, a non-profit that focusses on conservation and resource management in the coastal areas of India, draws a parallel between Maldives and the Indian islands. “We need to learn from the current challenges that small island nations are facing and adopt the mitigation measures they are using because the Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are dealing with very similar issues. These island territories are fragile and vulnerable to natural disasters like tsunamis and sea-level rise.”

Manuel adds: “Climate change requires a long-term view. In India, the government has set up the Long-term Ecological Observatories initiative, which is a network of government bodies and non-profits working together to build datasets on critical ecosystems that can help us understand climate change trends and create effective policy and solutions. Working with the communities who will be the most impacted is vital here. Dakshin Foundation is trying to ensure that fisheries are managed sustainably and equitably. However, these steps are just the beginning.”

Sweta Daga is a Bengaluru-based freelance photojournalist working on the intersection of climate and social justice. This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 27, 2023.)

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