A sinking feeling

Archana Singh | Updated on June 19, 2020

Deep impact: The Maldives is counted among the top diving sites in the world. But all is not well in the paradise   -  ISTOCK.COM

Inch by inch, the waters of the Indian Ocean are invading the tiny island nation of the Maldives. The end of this tourism paradise could be just 80 years away

* The rising sea waters could sink the Maldives by 2100

* The Maldives may not have any coral reefs by 2045

Before a virus took the entire world hostage, I was in the palm-fringed paradise of the Maldives. There, the weather is always romantic (though a tad humid at times). The white-sand beaches are always toasting under the sun, the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean are practically at your doorstep, and the vibrant fish in the coral reefs are at play all day. However, this paradise is facing an existential crisis.

The sea is the lifeline of this island nation, but the rising sea levels caused by climate change is among its biggest worries. Ironically, the Maldives contributes a negligible 0.0003 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, the low-lying nation of 1,192 scattered islands, mostly pancake flat, is intensely vulnerable to the dangers of sea-level rise. If concrete steps are not taken to mitigate climate change, Maldives will be consumed by the sea by 2100.

Locals say the rising seas have already led to severe erosion on some islands. Among other problems is the one of saltwater filling up wells and storms becoming more violent.

“Ten years ago, it used to rain only in June and July, and the rest of the year was sunny with calm seas. That’s not the case any more. Now it rains any time, and flooding is a common sight,” says Axxam Rafeeu, a technician from the island of Meedho. At least twice a year, he added, waves washed over the island.

We decided to dig deeper into this climate emergency and study the sustainable development policies and smart climate-resilient strategies being followed by the Maldives.

Preserving marine ecosystems

The real charm of the Maldives lies underwater — an overwhelming diversity of marine life with over 250 species of corals and 2,000-plus species of fish. No wonder the Maldives is counted among the top diving sites in the world. But all is not well in the paradise.

Andres Mehner, a specialist in shark ecology and the speciality dive instructor at Divepoint, Hudhuranfushi, an island in the North Malé atoll, informed us that the rise in sea temperature has destroyed 60-70 per cent of reefs in the last six years. Scientists have warned that if strict measures are not taken, the Maldives may not have any coral reefs by 2045. Moreover, reefs are not just important for their visual appeal; they provide shelter and food to the fish population and act as the first line of defence when sea storms hit the islands.

To preserve its white shores and boost its burgeoning blue economy, the Maldivian ministry of environment is implementing Coastal Protection Projects with the aid of the World Bank. The projects focus on protecting the coral reef and coastal wetlands, which, too, are rich in biodiversity and act as barricades against erosion. By preserving these marine ecosystems and their fauna, the Maldives is also striving to protect the two sectors that contribute to almost 80 per cent of its economy: Tourism and fisheries.

Private players, NGOs and local communities have chipped in, too. Ruth Franklin, co-founder of Secret Paradise, an eco-friendly tour company, said, “We employ local guides and encourage tourists to get involved in conservation programmes. All our guests are briefed in detail on how to be responsible in the water — such as not stepping on corals and to not feed fish.”

Adopting a circular economy

Sometimes less is more, and that is what the Maldives is trying to achieve through the circular economy model. In simple terms, it is all about the three R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle. Many resorts are now trying to minimise wastage and actively motivate guests to reduce, reuse and recycle resources as much as possible. Vivek Tiwari, an employee at Adaaran Hudhuranfushi Resort, shared the zero-waste policy of his employer: “Nothing goes waste on our island. Even discarded wood and metal are reused to create garden furniture and fencing. Water is recycled, and biodegradable waste is used as manure in the kitchen garden. Very soon, our island will be 100 per cent plastic-free [and] with our own water purification plant.”

Providing clean energy

Although the Maldives is fully electrified, this power runs on a diesel-powered grid system, which makes it one of the worst carbon offenders in South Asia. To reduce reliance on costly, polluting diesel, the Asian Development Bank and the environment ministry are jointly working on solar power projects to install a solar battery-diesel hybrid system in approximately 50 of the 160 inhabited islands.

Besides, luxury resorts are adopting a sustainable approach to run their businesses. While some newly built resorts such as Kudadoo Maldives are powered entirely by solar energy, others — Adaaran Resort, for instance — are converting smaller sections of their islands to utilise solar power.

The Maldives is turning obstacles into opportunities to create a more sustainable future for its citizens, but it won’t be enough until the major carbon offenders play their part. Sea-level rise is not just going to stop after it engulfs the Maldives.

Archana Singh is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Published on June 19, 2020

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