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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.