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Going carbon neutral and protecting marine environment are key to fighting climate change in the tiny island nation, says Nalaka Gunawardene.
‘Raise your voice, not the sea level’ is the theme for this year’s World Environment Day, which falls on 5 June. The theme resonates with the United Nations designating 2014 as the International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) [1], to express solidarity with the world's 51 small island states, many of which are on the frontline of climate change impacts. [2]
The only one in South Asia, the Maldives, has long been vocal on the high vulnerability of such states.
The Maldives is the smallest Asian country in both population and land area: it packs around 350,000 people into just under 300 square km. Located in the Indian Ocean, south-west of India and Sri Lanka, it is an archipelago of 1,192 islands, of which only 200 are inhabited. With an average ground level of 1.5 metres above sea level, it is also the lowest country on the planet. [3]
An expected rise of two degrees Celsius in the world’s average temperatures during this century could seriously affect island states like the Maldives, which are least able to cope with extreme weather events and rising sea levels.
Sea level rise
A 2013 World Bank report envisages sea levels rising in South Asia by 60 to 80 cm if temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius by 2100, relative to 1986-2005. In a scenario of four degrees Celsius rise in global average temperatures by 2100, the sea-level rise could touch 100-115 cm by the 2090s. [4]
As the planet warms, melting glaciers and polar ice caps increase the volume of seawater. Warmer waters also expand, taking more space. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the global sea level has already risen by about 10 to 25 cm during the last 100 years.

“It is imperative to protect the coral reefs, sea grass, coastal vegetation and wetlands to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change.” 

Ali Rilwan, Bluepeace

Sea level rise is a gradual process, not a single event like a tsunami. Land first gets flooded temporarily during high tide or stormy weather. Salt intrusion can render soil and groundwater unusable well before permanent inundation happens.
The Maldivians saw early evidence of this in April 1987, when the highest tidal waves in memory flooded a third of the capital Malé, washing away reclaimed land and causing widespread damage. Later that year, the then Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom raised the issue at the UN General Assembly, and appealed for help to nations like his.
In 1989, he convened the first global small island states conference on sea level rise: the beginning of joint advocacy that was later picked up by the Alliance of Small Island States, AOSIS, formed in 1990. [5]
At the time, Gayoom told me in an interview, ''A mere rise of one foot in sea level would mean a great deal to us. Storm action and wave action can lead to erosion of the land, salt intrusion and loss of agricultural land, and flooding.”
His successor, Mohamed Nasheed, who took over in late 2008, called the plight of his people a human rights issue and a clear threat to national security. In a clever communications move, he once held a cabinet meeting underwater to illustrate what could unfold in a few decades.
Carbon neutral plan
At the policy level, Nasheed announced in 2009 that the Maldives would become carbon neutral in a decade. The ambitious plan involved phasing out fossil fuel use with renewable energies (solar, wind and biomass), improving energy efficiency, and an integrated solid waste management system. [6]
"We understand that our becoming carbon-neutral will not save the world, but at least we would have the comfort of knowing that we did the right thing," Nasheed said later that year.
Nasheed told me in an interview in 2009: “Traditionally, we've always thought that adaptation represents physical structures — revetments, embankments, breakwaters, etc. But the most important adaptation issue is good governance and, therefore, consolidating democracy is very important for adaptation.” [7]

Political storm
But after Nasheed resigned in February 2012, the Maldives has experienced considerable political unrest. Preoccupied with uncertainties of the present, Maldivians have not had much time to reflect on their long-term survival.
Ali Rilwan, executive director of Bluepeace, the country’s oldest environmental organisation, says his group is unclear where plans for carbon neutrality stand today. “Even (the current) President Abdulla Yameen’s government has not mentioned a word about Maldives (going) carbon neutral by 2020.” 
Meanwhile, in May 2014, Maldives minister of environment and energy, Thoriq Ibrahim, pledged to ‘minimise the country’s dependence on fossil fuels’ and called for increased investment in clean energy. [8]
Adaptation strategies
An innovative and rigorous adaptation strategy that includes healthier, climate-resilient ecosystems is the best way forward for Maldivians.
Bluepeace advocates ecosystem-based adaptation for the short and medium term. That entails conserving terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems as well as restoring those degraded.
Of particular concern is the health of coral reefs on which the nation’s key economic activity of tourism depends critically. Coral reefs are also the first line of defence against wave action and storm surges. The warming seas triggered large scale coral bleaching in 1998 and 2010, causing much damage.
“It is imperative to protect the coral reefs, sea grass, coastal vegetation and wetlands to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change,” says Rilwan. [9]
Ibrahim Naeem, director of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Coastal Zone Management Centre, located in Malé, agrees.  Adopting integrated coastal zone management (ICZM), a scientific methodology to balance competing demands, can help countries to reconcile competing demands and many pressures on the coast.
For the longer term, elevating entire islands is an option, albeit a very expensive one. An example is the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé that stands two metres above sea level.
Can the Maldivians adapt fast enough to outpace the rising seas? Despite their passionate climate advocacy for over a quarter century, that remains uncertain.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based science writer and journalist who has covered climate stories since the late 1980s. He is also a trustee of SciDev.Net. The views in this column are his own.

A version of this story was originally published on the South Asia edition.


[1] UNEP World Environment Day website
[2] UN DESA list of small island developing states
[3] Maldives country profile by SAARC Coastal Zone Management Centre.
[4] Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience. The World Bank, 2013.
[5] Report of the small island states conference on sea level rise, Malé, The Maldives, November 1989.
[6] Maldives first to go carbon neutral. The Guardian, 15 March 2009.
[7] Nalaka Gunawardene interview with President Mohamed Nasheed, published in Groundviews, 23 October 2009.
[8] Environment Minister pledges to minimize Maldives dependence on fossil fuels. Minivan News, 8 May 2014.
[9] Climate Change Pushes Maldives into Uncharted Waters; Ecosystem-based Adaptation is Imperative for its Survival. Bluepeace blog,1 May 2014.