A sinking feeling

Published : Oct 23, 2009 00:00 IST

President Mohamed Nasheed. [The countries] that embrace the Green New Deal will be the winners of the 21st century, he said in his address to the United Nations climate summit.-.

President Mohamed Nasheed. [The countries] that embrace the Green New Deal will be the winners of the 21st century, he said in his address to the United Nations climate summit.-.

THE Maldives was largely terra incognita for tourists until the early seventies. Strewn across the equator in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives archipelago possesses an exceptionally unique geography as a small island country.

The Maldives has always been a unique nation. Apart from a period of Portuguese domination in the Sixteenth century and carrying the status of a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965, the archipelago has been an independent archipelago for at least twenty-five centuries.

The Maldives is a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Non-Aligned Movement. The Maldives maintains a very cordial relationship with the international community and the Maldivians themselves take pride in their hospitality and friendliness!

These lines are from the introductory note titled Maldives The sunny side of life on the countrys Ministry of Tourism website.

Contrast these with the doomsday scenario outlined by none other than the Executive President of the Republic of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, in an article in The New York Times dated December 23, 2008, exactly a month after he took over the reins of the country after emerging victorious in the first multiparty, multi-candidate elections in the countrys 44-year-old independent history.

The first three paragraphs of the article, titled Losing paradise, read:

Like any other nation state, at any point in history, the Maldives must protect itself from the menace of foreign invasion, terrorism and espionage. Still, to be honest, I really dont see anyone wanting to invade or attack us.

For the first time in the countrys history, however, the Maldives face a new threat. This new danger is of apocalyptic, existential proportions, and it looms silently, invisibly and menacingly over our azure horizon. I am talking about climate change and rising sea levels.

The average height of our islands is just 1.5 metres above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that sea levels could rise over half a metre by the end of the 21st century, unless urgent steps are taken to halt greenhouse gas emissions. Low-lying island states such as the Maldives are living on borrowed time.

The two statements, read together, project elements of the Maldives past, present and future. The Maldives may be the smallest Asian country in terms of both population and area and the smallest predominantly Muslim nation in the world, but it has plenty to offer to the wealthy tourist and the angry environmentalist agitated over the issue of climate change.

Nasheed and his team have grabbed the opportunity presented by the climate change conflict between the developed and developing countries to showcase the Maldives as a textbook case in the search for answers to some of the complex questions on global warming and the threat of an environmental catastrophe.

The Maldives islands, officially the Republic of Maldives, is a group of atolls in the Indian Ocean stretching south of Indias Lakshadweep Islands between Minicoy Island and the Chagos Archipelago, and about 700 kilometres (435 miles) south-west of Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea. It is also the country with the lowest highest point in the world, at 2.3 metres. The population of the Maldives is currently a little more than a quarter of a million.

Officials of Maldivian Tourism pointed out to a group of visiting foreign journalists that in jest they dare nature-loving adventure tourists to come to the Maldives and count the number of islands in it. They say that counting the islands, including the sand spits, is like trying to count the number of stars in the sky. The commonly agreed upon figure of 1,190 is but an approximation.

These islands, of pure white coral sand, are grouped into natural atolls that are protected by surrounding reefs. The Maldives actually straddles the Equator. The climate is tropical with no major seasonal differences. Though the southwest monsoon brings most of the rain, mostly around June and July, tropical rain showers can occur any time.

As for the economy, statistics for the past two decades indicate an average of 10 per cent growth. Tourism is the main industry and contributes almost 20 per cent to the gross domestic product (GDP). The Maldives boasts South Asias highest GDP per capita, but the figure is inflated by the countrys significant tourism revenues, which do not trickle down to everyone. Some 40 per cent of the population still earns less than $2 a day. Until the beginning of 2009 the Maldives did not have a university.

In an interaction with the visiting journalists on September 7 at his presidential office, Nasheed said his biggest worry was the economy. We are running on 34 per cent deficit. Conventional economic wisdom says hit the panic button once the deficit crosses 14 per cent. In the last four years this country has spent a lot of money, but we didnt have it all. We have accumulated lots of debt. The global recession and fewer tourists have added to our economic woes.

The capital, Male, spread over a geographical area of 2.5 square kilometres, is a classic case of overcrowding, with people and motorised vehicles competing for space amid the concrete work that, according to the local people, never seems to end. More than a third of the countrys population lives in such a small space. Statistics for motorised vehicles are not readily available, but the government believes that every household in Male has more than one vehicle.

There are no fixed-line telephones in the country, and people depend entirely on mobile communication. With the fervour of Ramadan at its peak on September 7 and 8, Male wore a deserted look throughout the day only to come alive at sundown when people broke their fast and drove around on the congested roads in the swankiest of cars and motorcycles.

Residents of Male, among whom are middle-rung diplomats and an estimated 80,000 foreign employees and another 35,000 illegal immigrants, complain about the high cost of living. Rents sometimes match those of Hong Kong or New York. The foreign employees and illegal immigrants consist mainly of people from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The largest island in the chain is not more than 8 sq km. The sheer logistics of providing transportation links to the inhabited islands and basic infrastructure for education, health care and other necessities is a nightmare for the government.

The Maldives has no room for the middle-class tourist; it has created for itself a niche as a destination for high-budget tourists. No prior visa is required to enter the country. Entry permits are granted to visitors on arrival at designated ports of entry on the basis of immigration requirements.

Maldivian Air Taxi and Trans Maldivian Airways operate special air transfer trips to most of the resorts but the costs are beyond the imagination of ordinary mortals. A one-way trip by a seaplane to an island 30 minutes away from Male is $175.

Maldivians are generally not race conscious, perhaps because the country has been inhabited for centuries, and visitors from as far apart as China, Africa, Arabia and Persia have been assimilated into its society.

As a country that is threatened most by the rise in sea level, the Maldives has the status of a front-line state in the debate on climate change.

In his address to the United Nations climate summit in New York on September 22, Nasheed called upon world leaders to seize the historic opportunity at the Copenhagen climate summit to be held in December. He asked world leaders to discard [the] habits that have led to 20 years of complacency and broken promises on climate change.

He said: For the past 20 years we have stood here warning you of the threat of climate change. But we have not told you what the solution is, we have not clearly explained that it is in your interest not just ours to pursue that solution, and we have not been willing to prove that such a solution is achievable and mutually beneficial by pursuing it ourselves by leading by example.

He said the solution to climate change lay in three major areas:

Developed countries accepting ambitious and binding emission reduction targets consistent with an average temperature increase of below 1.5{+0} Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels;

The developing world being ready to jump, by accepting binding emission reduction targets under the principle of common but differentiated responsibility;

The developed world providing new, additional and predictable adaptation financing.

He blamed, among other things, the belief that tackling climate change would reduce growth and production, the mistrust among world leaders and the focus on a negative list of actions as the main reasons for the lack of progress in the climate-change crisis.

On the perception that climate change is a killer of production and growth, the President said: [The countries] that embrace the Green New Deal will be the winners of the 21st century. Oil is running out and will become increasingly expensive, while clean technologies and renewable energy are becoming ever more efficient and affordable.

The summit, which was held at the U.N. General Assembly hall, was attended by over a hundred world leaders. Alas, a few hours later, the U.N. News Centre reported that at the end of the summit there was no agreement between major powers on carbon emissions.

On the Copenhagen climate summit, Nasheed told the foreign mediapersons on September 7: We cant even go there. We dont have the money. If you look at the fiscal balance and the monetary system it is very important for me to forgo an important event, for others to understand the importance of balancing the budget.

At the same time he was emphatic that there was hope and optimistic that the situation could be reversed. His logic, on the face of it, is simple. There is no point in blaming the past and also trying to justify inactions and destructive actions. Whatever the Europeans have done in the past is done. If India and China continue to do that, its not necessarily correct. Two wrongs do not produce a right. We wouldnt want people to go on and on, he said.

On the Kyoto Protocol, he is of the view that it proved to be a damp squib as it came after nuclear disarmament agreements. The whole framework was based on disarmament treaty obligations. I think conducting these negations through similar jargons produced similar results. People should have thought outside the box, about adaptable solutions.

The Maldivian President is scheduled to visit India in October at the invitation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and intends to enlist New Delhis cooperation in the global quest for a common understanding on climate change.

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