White sand and crystal clear water that laps around the Maldives draw thousands to the islands every year, but in the waves lie the seeds of the country’s possible destruction.
The archipelago is on the frontline of climate change in a way that few other countries can claim and its unfortunate position has made it a vocal campaigner and, it hopes, a role-model in the battle against global warming.
In 2007, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that a rise in sea levels of 18 to 59 centimetres (7.2 to 23.2 inches) by 2100 would be enough to make the Maldives virtually uninhabitable.
Over 80 percent of the country’s land, composed of coral islands scattered some 850 kilometres (550 miles) across the equator, is less than one metre (3.3 feet) above mean sea level.
Ahead of a climate change summit in Copenhagen in December, where the world’s powers hope to agree a new pact to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the country is preparing to make a loud case for hasty action.
“The best we can do is to tell the world that what is happening to us can happen to you tomorrow,” says Maldives Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam. “The big countries must see their future reflected through us.”
The government of the nation of 1,192 low-lying coral islets has even been thinking aloud about buying a “homeland” in Australia or in neighbouring India or Sri Lanka for its 330,000-strong population.
Mohamed Nasheed, a young, former journalist elected as president last year, hopes this will not be necessary.
“Our core point is that there is hope. We can reverse the situation. I think it is very important for people to realise that we are not fighting a losing battle,” he told reporters at his sea-front office in the capital Male, in an interview earlier this month.
Seeking to set an example, Nasheed has set goals to turn the Maldives into the first nation to be carbon neutral by 2020.
The 200 inhabited islands in the Maldives want to switch over to solar and wind-driven generators and authorities hope to drastically reduce the number of motorcycles that choke Male’s narrow streets.
While details of the plan remain vague, officials are keen to showcase their new eco credentials.
Nasheed says he wants luxury tourist resorts to take the lead and he is offering tax concessions for renewable energy schemes.
The Soneva Fushi resort, half an hour by sea plane from Male, is setting up the first major solar energy project in the Maldives next month. The resort hopes to harness a tenth of its electricity from the sun.
Soneva Fushi which has 60 villas with daily rates that run into thousands of dollars is tapping deep sea water to work air conditioner chillers.
“We have demonstrated that luxury and minimal environmental impact are compatible,” environment manager at Soneva, Enka Hofmeister, told AFP during a recent visit.
In Male, however, the challenges for a country that wants to be an environmental trailblazer can be seen in the traffic-clogged streets of a city where 130,000 live in one square mile (2.5 square kilometre).
During monsoon rains, sewers are overwhelmed and the streets flood; pollution is thick from the thousands of motorcycles and hundreds of cars that buzz up and down its narrow paved streets.
“Dealing with the transport sector will be a challenge for us,” acknowledged Aslam, who is also the minister in charge of transport.
“We have moved to a motorised culture in the past two decades and it will be difficult to get back on bikes.”
Aslam and Nasheed agree that their green initiatives are unlikely to have an impact on slowing global warming and saving the Maldives, but they hope their moves could demonstrate the seriousness of the problem.
“We might be very small, insignificant and with very few people, but we feel climate change is not just an environmental issue,” Nasheed said. “What we are doing (by example) is advocacy, to get our desperate message across.”
In December 2004, the country had a brief taster of how it felt to be under water when the Asian tsunami struck, leaving a trail a destruction. Several islands have since been abandoned because they are considered unsafe.
It is hoped here that the Copenhagen meeting, where ministers aim to craft a post-2012 pact for curbing the heat-trapping gases that drive global warming, will help avert a much slower but more significant submersion.