Maldives Builds Barriers to Global Warming When the 2004 tsunami hit, the Maldives islands were submerged for several minutes. Those waters retreated, but rising sea levels from global warming won't be so transient. Plans to adapt to a warmer world include a flood-resistant island.
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Maldives Builds Barriers to Global Warming

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Maldives Builds Barriers to Global Warming

Maldives Builds Barriers to Global Warming

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And it's time for Climate Connections, NPR's yearlong series with National Geographic. 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, and a strategy to pay for that plan.

NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.

JON HAMILTON: In the Maldives, you can climb a small palm tree and be higher than the highest point of land.

(Soundbite of water)

HAMILTON: 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. But the very tops, now capped with coral sand, remain above water.

(Soundbite of a TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: In the remote Indian Ocean, lies a paradise that is called Maldives islands.

HAMILTON: For most of their history, Maldivians lived off of fishing, but now there's tourism.

(Soundbite of a TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: These are islands that are bathed in sunshine and washed with pristine blue waters.

HAMILTON: Unfortunately, those waters are threatening to wash away the entire country. And that's what President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has spent the past couple of decades talking about, almost nonstop.

President MAUMOON ABDUL GAYOOM (Republic of Maldives): I stand before you as a representative of an endangered people.

HAMILTON: That's Gayoom addressing the United Nations Earth Summit way back in 1992.

Pres. GAYOOM: 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.

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

(Soundbite of water)

Mr. AZEEZ ABDUL AZEEZ HAKEEM ((Director, Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru Marine Laboratory): This water has to go somewhere.

HAMILTON: Azeez Abdul Azeez Hakeem runs a marine research lab on the island of Vabbinfaru.

Mr. HAKEEM: I'm sure that some of this water would come into the Indian Ocean also, and there's no way that we can prevent this water coming into the Indian Ocean, into the Maldives.

HAMILTON: Azeez says floods are nothing new to the islanders. The 2004 tsunami pretty much submerged the Maldives for several minutes. In 1987, tidal surges flooded the capital, causing millions of dollars in damage. And Azeez says things are only going to get worse.

Mr. HAKEEM: We have to survive. We have to find a way to prevent water, sea water coming into the island.

HAMILTON: But how? President Gayoom 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, who's ruled the Maldives for 30 years now, has been experimenting with a more hands-on approach, starting with a project near his presidential palace.

(Soundbite of hammering)

HAMILTON: Here in the capital of Male, the entire island is surrounded by this massive concrete seawall. And for years, people have been repairing and reinforcing this wall to keep the ocean out.

HAMILTON: Gayoom got the Japanese government to pay for the wall after the floods of 1987. It cost about $60 million, and it did reduce the vulnerability of Male, which is only a mile long but houses a 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.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

HAMILTON: You catch a ferry from a part of Male where motorcycles clog the narrow streets and fishermen gut their morning catch on the sidewalk.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

HAMILTON: A few minutes later, you arrive in a brand new world - Hulhumale.

Unidentified Children: (Speaking in foreign language)

HAMILTON: It's an artificial island built by engineers, not volcanoes. You step up onto this island. The streets are straight and wide. There's a new hospital, new schools, new government buildings, new apartments and a brand new mosque, all several feet higher than the rest of the Maldives. Tamal Hussein(ph) is one of the workers who helped create this flood-resistant island. At the moment he's fishing off a small pier.

Mr. TAMAL HUSSEIN (Resident, Hulhumale): (Speaking in foreign language)

HAMILTON: Hussein says a huge dredge 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 50,000. But unlike their leader, residents don't talk much about climate change. They like Hulhumale because it's clean. It has wide sand beaches instead of a concrete seawall. Apartments are less expensive than on Male.

These 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.

Mr. MOHAMMED CHAID (Hulhumale Development Corporation): So yes, the higher elevation of the land is to address the sea-level rise, but the primary factor is to create a city to ease the congestion in Male.

HAMILTON: So Gayoom appears to have solved two major problems with one new island.

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 immediate and tangible benefit. Let's face it - we're more likely to buy a hybrid car if we can drive it 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.

Abdulla Naseer is from the Ministry of Fisheries.

Mr. ABDULLA NASEER (Ministry of Fisheries): That is an example of how we can adapt to future changes, you know. But then, of course, it involves a lot of costs as well.

HAMILTON: The Maldivian government has spent 20 years telling developed nations that they are causing climate change and that they must help pay for solutions, like taller islands. Hulhumale is only half-finished, and Gayoom wants to raise portions of several other islands. He was fundraising again just a few weeks ago at the U.N.'s climate change meeting in Bali.

Pres. GAYOOM: Over half of our islands are eroding at an alarming rate. 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.

HAMILTON: Thanks to the change in the political climate over the past couple of decades, he's likely to get what he wants.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can see how global warming may affect coastlines around the world in an animation at connections. There you can also get the latest on climate change from National Geographic magazine.

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