Maldives Builds Barriers to Global Warming

A bulldozer makes its way past palm trees on Hulhumale, an artificial island built by Maldives.

A bulldozer makes its way past palm trees on Hulhumale, an artificial island built by Maldives. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Countries struggling with climate change could learn a lot from a constellation of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean.

The Republic of Maldives was one of the first countries to recognize the danger of rising sea levels. It's also one of the first to come up with a plan to adapt to a warmer world.

It's easy to see why this nation is so attuned to climate change. In the Maldives, you can climb a small palm tree and be higher than the highest point of land.

These islands burst through the surface of the ocean thousands of years ago when a chain of underwater volcanoes erupted. They've been subsiding ever since. Only the very tops, now capped with coral sand, remain above water.

That has created a paradise for tourists. But the pristine blue water that draws people from around the world is also threatening to wash away the entire country.

Rising Waters

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has spent the past couple of decades talking about that threat.

In 1992 at the United Nations Earth Summit, he said, "I stand before you as a representative of an endangered people. We are told that as a result of global warming and sea-level rise, my country, the Maldives, may sometime during the next century, disappear from the face of the Earth."

It was a dramatic claim at a time when few people had even heard of climate change. Today, though, scientists agree that the Earth is getting warmer and polar ice is melting.

Azeez Abdul Azeez Hakim runs a marine research lab on the island of Vabbinfaru in the Maldives. He says that as polar ice melts, "this water has to go somewhere, and there is no way that we can prevent this water coming into the Indian Ocean, into the Maldives."

Of course, floods are nothing new to people here. The 2004 tsunami pretty much submerged the Maldives for several minutes. In 1987, tidal surges flooded the capital, causing millions of dollars in damage.

A Hands-On Approach

But Azeez says things are going to get worse.

"We have to survive," he says. "We have to find a way to prevent water, sea water coming into the island."

But how?

President Gayoom initially tried political solutions. The Maldives was the first country to sign the Kyoto protocol to fight global warming. But that hasn't done much yet to slow down sea-level rise.

So Gayoom, ruler of the Maldives for 30 years now, has been experimenting with a more hands-on approach, starting with a project near his presidential palace.

His first effort was a massive seawall made of concrete tetrapods. It surrounds the entire capital of Male.

Gayoom was able to persuade the Japanese government to pay for the $60 million wall after the floods of 1987. The wall reduced the vulnerability of Male, which is a mile long and houses one-third of the country's population.

But the wall also makes Male the least attractive of the Maldives' 200 inhabited islands.

So Gayoom — whose power here lets him do pretty much anything he wants — is now trying something a lot more ambitious just across the lagoon.

A Flood-Resistant Island

You catch a ferry from a part of Male where motorcycles clog the narrow streets and fishermen gut their morning catch on the sidewalk. A few minutes later, you arrive in a brand new world, the island of Hulhumale. It's an artificial island built by engineers, not volcanoes.

When the ferry arrives, you step up onto this island. The streets are straight and wide. There's a new hospital, new schools, new government buildings, new apartments — all several feet higher than the rest of the Maldives.

The flood-resistant island was created by a huge dredge that sucked up sand from the ocean floor and disgorged it into a shallow lagoon. Eventually, Hulhumale rose from the waters.

That was more than five years ago. Now, several thousand people live here. Gayoom's goal is to attract at least 50,000.

But unlike their president, residents don't talk much about climate change.

They say they like Hulhumale because it's clean. It has wide sand beaches instead of a concrete seawall. Apartments are less expensive than on Male.

Maldivians' priorities come as no surprise to Mohammed Chaid of the Hulhumale Development Corporation, which was set up by the government to build and settle the new island.

"The higher elevation of the land is to address the sea-level rise," he says. "But the primary factor is to create a city to ease the congestion in Male."

So Gayoom appears to have solved two major problems at once: creating a safer place to live and getting people to move there.

As governments around the world are discovering, most people won't make big changes because of the distant threat of global warming. But they will change for an immediate and tangible benefit. Let's face it, we're more likely to buy a hybrid car if we can drive in the carpool lanes while we're saving the planet.

So climate change may not be the main reason Maldivians are moving to their new island. But it has helped the country pay for it.

"That is an example of how we can adapt to future changes," says Abdulla Naseer, who runs the Ministry of Fisheries. "But of course, it involves a lot of costs as well.

And President Gayoom wants other countries to help pay the costs of finishing Hulhumale, which is only half done, and raising portions of several other islands.

His strategy has been to make the case that developed nations are causing climate change and that they must help pay for solutions like taller islands.

"Over half of our islands are eroding at an alarming rate," Gayoom said at the U.N.'s climate change meeting in Bali in late 2007. "In some cases, island communities have had to be relocated to safer islands. Without immediate action, the long-term habitation of our tiny islands is in serious doubt."

By action, he means money. And thanks to a change in the political climate over the past couple of decades, Gayoom is likely to get what he wants.

Produced by Jane Greenhalgh

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