Tag Archives: South Asia

Our Nation is Sinking: The Maldives and Global Warming

by Benjamin Sacks

Malé, the congested capital of the Maldives. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

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:

  1. Rising sea levels and increasingly fast erosion led to fewer tourists, and hence much-needed income.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Mapping Education

by Benjamin Sacks

As pupils, teachers, and parents head into the final weeks preceding the winter holiday, education remains a perennial and hotly debated issue. In the last week alone, Education Secretary Michael Gove urged Lancashire primary schools to increase their standards and testing results, commentators discussed raising university fees on the Isle of Man and, while on a trip to India, Boris Johnson railed against declining numbers of foreign students attending British universities. These stories come on the heels of several years of upheaval in the British education system – ranging from the introduction of high tuition fees to reforms in primary and secondary care.

In the most recent Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Sarah L Holloway and Heike Jöns (Loughborough University) headlined a thematic issue focusing on changing geographies of education. The articles, as well as Holloway and Jöns’s summarisation, featured at the Second International Conference on Geographies of Education, held 10-11 September 2012 at Loughborough University, and presently form a 14-article ‘virtual issue’.

The authors begin their analysis with a discussion of the vital role states play in the successful implementation of educational policy at every level, from ensuring that regions meet appropriate national testing regulations, to provide local medical, nursery, and food assistance. In so doing, they highlight at least two key, but uneasy partnerships: the state and parents; and the balance between public and private responsibilities. These balances appear to be in nearly constant flux; demanding education reform that’s attune to the needs of different constituencies.

Sociologists and geographers of education are increasingly cognizant of the rapidly changing nature of education itself or, as the authors concisely described, ‘[W]hat is learnt’ (483). Several important themes are highlighted:  interdisciplinary studies; the importance of informal education, or education that does not take place within the traditional classroom (e.g., field trips, active citizenship and volunteering); introduction to and engaging in national and international issues, and conceptualising different ‘spaces of learning’ that can be tailored to maximise opportunities in various environments (484-86). Geographers of education must also engage with the ‘complex networks’ and the ‘diverse flows of knowledge, information, capital and resources’ that are becoming increasingly global in the age of internet communications. As a final call to action, both authors suggest that British debates on education geography and policy engage with non-British sources, incorporating ideas and priorities from the Americas, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

 Sarah L Holloway and Heike Jöns, Geographies of Education and LearningTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 37 482-88.

 Michael Gove: Lancashire primary schools need to improveBBC News, 23 November 2012, accessed 26 November 2012.

 Isle of Man students to pay more for universityBBC News, 26 November 2012, accessed 26 November 2012.

 Boris Johnson warns that UK is losing foreign studentsBBC News, 26 November 2012, accessed 26 November 2012.

Water in Bangladesh

by Robin de la Motte

A modern water well

It has been known for some years that in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, large numbers of people are exposed to unsafe levels of naturally-occurring arsenic in water supplies drawn from groundwater. A recent study in the British medical journal The Lancet linked a fifth of all deaths in Bangladesh to arsenic contamination, and estimated that up to half the population (77 million people) had been chronically exposed. The problem affects substantial parts of South Asia, and arises due to the region’s increased use of groundwater in recent decades in order to avoid water-borne diseases found in surface water. The arsenic issue is just one aspect of Bangladesh’s water problems, which are likely to worsen in future. Climate change and population growth make it likely China and India will build new dams, reducing the volume of surface water Bangladesh receives downstream. Previous dams have already led to reduced water flows, causing problems of rivers silting up and increased salinity from seawater intruding in coastal areas.

A recent Geography Compass article (Benner and Fendorf 2010) examines the arsenic issue, which has been called the “largest mass poisoning in history”. Over 60 million people in the region are affected by arsenic contamination, with concentrations in drinking water sometimes over 100 times World Health Organization safety standards. Drinking water is the primary concern, but in addition contaminated water used for irrigation may – depending on local conditions – accumulate in soils and affect crops, particularly rice, although the health impacts of this are not well understood. Benner and Fendorf describe how the problems are caused by a combination of environmental conditions specific to the Asian deltas. The arsenic originates in Himalayan rocks, from where it is eroded and carried in river sediment to the delta floodplains, and then enters local aquifers. Benner and Fendorf note that the large increase in groundwater extraction (with nearly a million wells in Bangladesh by 2003) has unpredictable effects on arsenic concentrations, with both positive and negative effects possible; so far there is insufficient evidence of any effect. They note the potential of tapping deeper aquifers, which are largely uncontaminated, but also the risk of thereby drawing in contaminated water from shallower aquifers.

In brief: Millions of Bangladeshis poisoned by arsenic-laced water IRIN, 25 June 2010, “In brief: Millions of Bangladeshis poisoned by arsenic-laced water

Decades-old water dispute could destroy nation’s agriculture The Citizen (Tanzania), 24 September 2010, “Decades-old water dispute could destroy nation’s agriculture

View the Benner and Fendorf (2010) article here Benner, Shawn G., and Fendorf, Scott (2010), “Arsenic in South Asia Groundwater“, Geography Compass, Volume 4, Issue 10, pages 1532-1552

Is climate change making Everest more dangerous?

By Richard Gravelle

In the same week as a British climber tragically died on Mount Everest, Nepalese Sherpas have reported that the effects of climatic warming have made the world’s highest mountain even more dangerous to climb.

A recent report from the Humanitarian Futures Programme has suggested that temperatures on the Tibetan plateau have increased faster than other areas in South Asia, resulting in increased rates of ice and snow melt, as well as less snowfall.  This has caused greater amounts of bare rock to be exposed on Mount Everest, increasing the risk of falling boulders, and making it difficult for climber’s ice axes and crampons to grip the climbing surface.  The report also highlights the threat of highly destructive glacial outburst floods which pose a risk not only to those on the mountain, but also those living in downstream areas.

Almost 3,000 climbers have reached the summit of Mount Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent in 1953.  At the end of a season which has seen around 250 climbers successfully complete the ascent, will climate change prevent this number from rising, and make the highest point on Earth inaccessible?

Sherpas warn ice melt is making Everest ‘dangerous – BBC News

Liverpool man dies after reaching Everest summit – BBC News

The Humanitarian Futures Programme Report: The Waters of the Third Pole