MALE (AFP) – Among the many grim predictions of climate change experts, the future fate of The Maldives stands out as a genuine doomsday scenario with the island chain nation facing nothing short of extinction.
A one-metre (3.3-foot) rise in sea level would almost totally submerge the country’s 1,192 coral islands scattered off the southern tip of India. Experts predict a rise of at least 18 centimetres is likely by the end of the century.
So pressing has the danger become that the new Maldivian President Mohamed Anni Nasheed has said his government will begin saving now to buy a new homeland for his people to flee to in the future.
“We are talking about taking insurance — if the islands are sinking we must find high land some place close by. We should do that before we sink,” Nasheed said following his recent election victory.
“I don’t want Maldivians to end up as environmental refugees in some camp,” he said.
The new Maldivian government says it has already broached the subject of new land with a number of countries and found them to be “receptive”.
India and Sri Lanka are targets because they have similar cultures and climates, while Australia has also been mooted as an option.
The fate of the pristine white beaches of the Maldives, South Asia’s most expensive tourist destination, is set to be one of the features in discussions at a UN climate conference in the Polish city of Poznan from December 1-12.
The country’s land area is only about 300 square kilometres (115 square miles), while its sea area is nearly 100,000 square kilometers (38,610 square miles).
Over 80 percent of the land is less than one meter above mean sea level.
“Climate change and associated sea level rise represents a catastrophe in the making for Maldives,” the Maldivian environment ministry said.
For some Maldivians, such as fisherman Ali Usuf, the impact of climate change can already be felt.
Like all his fellow tuna fisherman, Usuf is wholly dependent on livebait to reel in his daily catch.
The bait is taken from small schooling fish varieties that breed and live on the Maldives’ 9,000-square-kilometre network of coral reefs that are highly vulnerable to climate change.
Warmer waters have already taken their toll on the health of the reefs and, as a result, on livebait stocks.
For Usuf, no bait means no catch and therefore no livelihood
“Because of global warming it’s difficult to get bait. This affects our life,” Usuf told AFP. “Just today, one boat turned back because they didn’t catch any bait.”
Around one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of livebait is required to catch 10 kilos of tuna.
Former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom launched a book in April to highlight the threat to the Maldives posed by global warming.
He said at the time that they could only adapt to the problem by relocating citizens to safer islands. The alternative, building protective walls on the 193 inhabited islands, was too expensive.
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.”