by Benjamin Sacks
Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.
The Maldives is sinking. Like several other South Asian and Oceanic archipelagos, the Maldives’s topography suffers from a lethal combination of high surface erosion and rising sea levels. The former stems from the islands’ soft soils, but most scientists agree that the latter is a direct consequence of global warming. Although rising sea levels may not pose much of a concern to residents of Salisbury or Kinross, it has become an extraordinarily important issue for a country where the highest point above sea level is a paltry 2.4 metres. Heightening tensions, the archipelago is remarkably dense and urbanised. In Malé, the country’s political, social, and cultural capital, Over 100,000 people reside on an island with an area less than 6 square kilometres (2.24 miles).
The Maldives’ susceptibility to erosion and land loss has been acknowledged for at least a century. In a 1901 Royal Geographical Society expedition, J Stanley Gardiner noted how the islands of Minikoi Atoll were sharply controlled by currents (pp. 287-88). But Gardiner evidently recognised the beauty in the erosion process. ‘Together with the washing away of the land’, he recalled in The Geographical Journal, ‘fresh conditions tend to be found on its reefs’ (p. 293). But what Gardiner perceived as interesting, if not dangerous phenomena proved increasingly problematic in the years following the Maldives’ independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. In the early 1990s, British geographers and climate specialists repeatedly warned that such archipelagos as the Maldives were at increasing risk of flooding or disappearing altogether. Even a ‘slightly higher rise in sea level increase the areas of potential inundation, threaten[ing] the existence of certain island states (e.g. the Maldives) (Jones p. 127)’. Rising sea levels and increased erosion prompted Erlet Cater to accuse, in 1995 article in The Geographical Journal, the Maldives’ government of willful negligence and destruction for the sake of tourism. Cater identified a increasingly negative cycle:
- Rising sea levels and increasingly fast erosion led to fewer tourists, and hence much-needed income.
- To increase tourism levels, Malé increased mining of coral reefs around the islands, selling the dried corals as souvenirs and permitting tourists to travel in and around the fragile reefs.
- Coral levels plummeted, not only creating an oceanic environmental crisis, but destroying islands’ natural barrier against erosion. Erosion increased, to the shock and amazement of officials.
- The Maldives tried to both stem rising water levels and continue fostering tourism through coral sales. They failed in both instances.
As if deliberately echoing Cater’s call to action, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami most violently demonstrated the existential threat the Maldives faced. Although the country suffered remarkably few casualties relative to its neighbours, much of the islands were completely flooded, quickly leading to a national disaster. Malé – and most government administration and private business – came to a chaotic standstill for weeks while locals tried to apprise the situation on dozens of widely scattered and isolated islands.
In the most recent edition of The Geographical Journal (June 2014), Uma Kothari (University of Manchester) returned to the Maldives question, albeit with a new – and fascinating – perspective. In order to combat rising sea levels, recent successive Maldivian governments have sought to resettle thousands of residents from some of the more remote, impassable islands to larger, more populated, and accessible atolls. In total, the government intends to reorganise the country’s total population – currently thought to reside on some 200 islands and oversize reefs – onto about ten larger islands.
On the surface this appears logical, (relatively) efficient for a small state with a small population, and even honourable, given the Maldives’ enormous environmental obstacles. As Kothari explains, however, Malé is also influenced by longstanding political and economic priorities; environmental concerns, to an extent at least, have become a convenient mask. Although the government’s commitment to drastic environmental reforms is undeniable (In 2009 then-President Mohamed Nasheed pronounced that the Maldives intends to become ‘carbon-neutral’ by 2020), ‘environmental concerns have also been used to justify and legitimise other agendas’ (p. 135). Since the early years of independence, both the government and private sector elites have pushed for population consolidation as a means of reorganising national spending, raising the profile of tourism, and effecting greater political and social control (pp. 136-37). Although some Maldivians have vocally resisted the government’s declarations, the very real threat posed by climate change seems to have swung the balance far in Malé’s favour.
How does the Maldives’ approach and handling of rising sea levels and increasing land erosion compare to other, similarly at-risk states? Kiribati? Micronesia? Nauru? Has climate change become a front for consolidating other agendas?
J Stanley Gardiner, ‘The Formation of the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 19.3 (Mar., 1902): 277-96.
Erlet Cater, ‘Environmental Contradictions in Sustainable Tourism‘, The Geographical Journal 161.1 (Mar., 1995): 21-28.
David K C Jones, ‘Global Warming and Geomorphology‘, The Geographical Journal 159.2 (Jul., 1993): 124-30.
Richard Warrick and Graham Farmer, ‘The Greenhouse Effect, Climate Change and Rising Sea Level: Implications for Development‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 15.1 (1990): 5-20.
Uma Kothari, ‘Political discourses of climate change and migration: resettlement policies in the Maldives‘, The Geographical Journal 180.2 (Jun., 2014): 130-40.