Global warming threatens the Maldives

The Maldives’ crystal-clear lagoons draw high-spending sun and sand worshippers who help keep its economy afloat, but the warm waters could also drown the tiny nation.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom leaves for the Earth Summit next week to renew warnings that his nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands could be lost beneath the waves unless global warming is tackled.

Gayoom (64) has emerged as a David in the battle against rising sea waves since he first drew the United Nations’ attention at the 1987 General Assembly.

He is using every international forum to convey his “sinking” feeling, diplomats said.

Maldivian diplomats here said Gayoom will address the Earth Summit Tuesday and highlight the plight of his Indian Ocean nation of

250 000 Sunni Muslims, who could become the world’s first environmental refugees.

“The President is very concerned about environmental issues and he will focus on this at the Earth Summit,” Maldivian High Commissioner (ambassador) Abdul Azeez Yoosuf said.

The country’s territory covers 90 000 square kilometres, but 99% of it is water.

Only 202 islands are inhabited by Maldivians. Another 87 islands have been developed as money-spinning exclusive tourist resorts while the rest of the 1,192 coral islands are uninhabited.

Gayoom told the UN general assembly in 1987 that a two-metre rise in the sea level will submerge virtually all his coral islands scattered some 850 kilometres across the equator.

“That would be the death of a nation,” Gayoom told the UN. “With a mere one-metre rise also, a storm surge would be catastrophic, and possibly fatal to the nation.”

Gayoom himself was nearly washed into the Indian Ocean in April 1987 when giant tidal waves swept the capital island of Male.

“While I was inspecting the damage, a large wave reared up suddenly and buffeted the vehicle I was in,” Gayoom wrote later.

“It was a moment of fear, not for my own safety, but for the safety of the people of Maldives.”

The Maldives is now building a brand new island by dredging the sea bed to tackle the problem of rising sea waves that threaten to wipe the Maldives off the face of the earth.

The project, called ‘Hulhu Male’, was begun in 1997 and work is still continuing to create what could become the biggest island in the equatorial country, officials said.

“This is one of the most important projects for us because of the very serious land problem we have,” High Commissioner Yoosuf said.

If not for early action to build high ground, the Maldivians will have no country and might have to be relocated elsewhere if the sea levels rise a couple of feet in the next few decades.

At the Commonwealth summit in Vancouver in November 1987, Gayoom talked about the possible “death” of his nation at a time when environmental issues were not so fashionable and when global warming was talked about only by academics.

Apart from the Maldives, fellow South Asian nations Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are also feeling the effects of sea erosion and warmer waters affecting corals and marine life.

Sri Lanka, which is much bigger than the Maldives, is facing a serious threat of sea erosion as a direct result of global warming.

Bangladesh’s fertile low-lying coastland, stretching hundreds of miles is exposed to natural calamities, such as cyclones and tidal surges.
- Sapa-AFP

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