Even in the Maldives, Climate Change Seems a Remote Threat for Many

The World

Sunset at Guraidhoo, Maldives (Photo: Lily Jamali)

Eleven year-old Rizmee Adam sits with his parents as the last patches of bright pink and orange sky fade over the tiny Maldivian island of Guraidhoo. The family lives feet from the sea, but Rizmee is less than impressed by his view of the Indian Ocean. He says he's scared that his house and everything he has will be washed away.

It's not just a child's imagination at work. The waves have entered his home many times before. Rizmee's father, Khalid, says their island has always had erosion problems. But in recent years, he says, the tides have grown more extreme:

"It's getting worse every year," Khalid Adam says, sitting atop concrete blocks the family has stacked as protection against a flood. "The monsoon season gets stronger each year. The environmental scientists are talking about the sea levels rising, and we're seeing the same thing."

Sea level rise will be one of the most significant impacts of climate change, and the Maldives is among the most vulnerable countries. Its 1,200 islands average only about five feet above sea level, and the country's president, Mohamed Nasheed, has been trying to bring his country's plight to international attention. Two years ago, just before the big climate summit in Copenhagen, Nasheed staged a world-class publicity stunt by holding a meeting of his cabinet six feet underwater, to "let the world know what… will happen to the Maldives, if climate change is not checked."

Nasheed said at the time that at best the Maldives had only fifty to seventy years before rising seas threatened the country's existence. And the prospects have only gotten worse since then. Five years ago a UN climate report forecast a possible two feet of sea level rise by the year 2100. Now many scientists are predicting an even more dramatic rise.

But even in a country where citizens could end up among the world's first big wave of climate refugees, many don't share their president's concern.

Mohamed Firushan, a Fisherman who lives not far from Khalid Adam on Guraidhoo, says he just doesn't believe sea level is rising. Firushan says he read on an Islamic website that a scientist had recently visited the area and said that there has been no change to the sea level in the last forty years.

Islam is the official religion here in the Maldives, and some Muslims here say that if their country is inundated, it's God's will.

But even some who grasp the science aren't all that concerned.

During a recent class at the Maldives National University in the capital Male, lecturer Ghaanim Mohamed asked his students if they think Maldivians are as worried as they should be. "When President Nasheed did that underwater cabinet meeting," Mohamed queried his class, "do you think that we really got the message? Do we really believe that we are in danger?

"Personally I don't feel that we are in danger" one of his students responded. "Because really, if we are sinking, we'll find other alternatives. For example, reclaiming the islands to two meters or four meters. If it is not four meters we will reclaim to six meters. Maldivians are very creative."

The student's comments reflect the culture of a small island nation where people long ago got used to trying to save and even expand their land, and where reclamation–creating new land out of sediment dredged up from the ocean–is an ongoing project.

Seventy five miles from Male, for instance, residents of the island of Thulaadhoo saw their once-congested island grow by more than 40 acres last year. The new land may still be vulnerable to sea level rise this century, but many here view the danger of inundation as a thing of the past.

Zubair Ibrahim, who owns a workshop where he makes the lacquered crafts this island is famous for, has lived all of his 46 years on Thulaadhoo, and he remembers when islanders constantly wondered when Mother Nature would strike next…

"Back then, during high tide," Ibrahim says, "the waves would just come in to the island. People's homes would get flooded. There was nothing much we could do. We would maybe put a sand bag or something."

Reclamation has changed that, at least for the time being.

"Now we have forgotten those days," Ibrahim says. "Now it does not flood."

In a sign of his hopefulness about the future here, Ibrahim is starting a museum of Thulaadhoo crafts.

Reclamation work is happening throughout the Maldives, and it's led to a sense among many that man has conquered nature. But reclamation is very expensive, and it may well not be enough to stay ahead of the advancing tides.

Some Maldivians say the gap between the reality of the threat and perceptions isn't just a matter of culture or religion. They say it's also political.

Hussain Yaamin, an opposition party member and part of Guraidhoo's island council, says President Nasheed hasn't focused on the issue enough here at home.

"He didn't talk about it with the people," Yaamin says. "He talks about it in the international conferences. So in this island, many of these peoples don't have that idea. They don't know what he's talking about even."

President Nasheed says he agrees that his government needs to do more to make people aware of what's happening. But environment minister Mohamed Aslam says even here, it can be hard to get people concerned about something as seemingly far off as climate change.

"Climate change, it's a slow process if you put it into a human timescale," Aslam says. "It's a bit like a smoker who continues to smoke knowing that ultimately he'll face the consequences of it."

Aslam acknowledges, thought, that many Maldivians might not be aware of the global nature of the problem.

Back on Guraidhoo, Khalid Adam doesn't use phrases like "global warming" or know the exact predictions for sea level rise. He just worries about his home.

"There is the fear that we won't be able to live here one day," Adam says. "But we won't just passively watch while our home gets destroyed.

And so he'll keep trying to protect his home, for as long as he can.

Funding for this story was provided by the South Asian Journalists Association