Facing the waves: Low-lying Maldives adapts to constantly changing environment

The islands of the Maldives as seen from the air. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
In Male, the densely built-up capital where there are no stray dogs and cats, garbage has to be taken away by boat, and electricity is fueled by imported diesel - and if the desalination plant fails, the city of more than 100,000 runs out of drinking water in less than a week. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

"It's like the islands dance," a young official of the Maldives' Ministry of Environment and Energy told me in an interview.

In Male, the densely built-up capital where there are no stray dogs and cats, garbage has to be taken away by boat, and electricity is fueled by imported diesel - and if the desalination plant fails, the city of more than 100,000 runs out of drinking water in less than a week.

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There was a time Maldives master fisherman Adam Naseer could catch as many skipjack tuna with a pole and line as he could handle. But as the world warms, life’s no longer that simple. Naseer, 45 and other islanders face many challenges: Rising sea temperatures force the precious tuna out of reach. With global warming they face related phenomena such as abrupt weather shifts, intense storms and waves, all coupled with a creeping rise in sea level.

Satellite photographs going back a few decades have shown that the Indian Ocean islands of the Maldives - clinging to a string of mountain tops barely protruding from the surface - are shape shifters.

Products of coral, and coexisting with the surging sea, they change shape seasonally, and over the years.

And sometimes, over the decades, they even move positions completely, seemingly mobile on the living coral atolls that form their base.

One reason the battalions of researchers studying climate change and its relationship with island and coastal erosion are invariably cautious is because for low-lying atolls - and also low-lying river deltas like the Mekong and the Irrawaddy - the reality is that the environment is always constantly changing.

The people who are still connected to the rhythms - like the Maldivian fishermen who catch skipjack tuna with rod and line and a bit of "Singapore thread" - cheap thin plastic ribbon - are used to change, and can adapt.

But adaptation to the slow changes of a stable climate is one thing; to rapid change it's quite another.

The Maldives, and other atoll nations like Kiribati, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, are so low-lying - the average elevation in the Maldives is just 1.6m above sea level - that worst-case sea-level-rise scenarios will only be the final straw. Before that, even a few centimetres will multiply the effects of bigger and stronger storms, big waves and big tides.

In a paradox, it is not easy in such a naturally shape-shifting environment, to connect individual changes or the sum of changes, to the bigger picture of climate change. We are still learning. There is, thus, often difficulty in drawing direct causal links of observed changes in the environment, with climate change.

Some shores erode naturally, some are subsiding, and some may even grow. Some coastal land tilts, to form a slope that is not apparent to the casual eye.

And the landscape reacts when people interfere with it as well. This in the scientific jargon, is called "anthropogenic pressure" - pressure from our buildings, our boats, our cars, our waste, our carbon dioxide.

But there are dilemmas, which the tourists who populate the high-end resorts scattered around the atolls and only accessible by plane or boat, do not usually see.

On Laamu Atoll in the Maldives, a 17km road being built by China has changed the landscape; what once were free-rolling waves is now a small calm bay. The consequences of such change - what will it do to the flow of sand which is vital for these islands, for instance - remain unknown.

Yet island nations need to develop infrastructure like bridges, harbours and jetties, not to mention sea walls and break waters. There are strategic plans in some island nations to consolidate their far-flung populations on a few nearby and stable islands, and focus on them as the rest literally go under by around the year 2100.

The more nuanced reality can contradict the easy black and white terms of the popular narrative - that sea-level rise is eating up entire coasts and islands for instance. The forces at play are many, and their interaction complex.

But that does not diminish the threat of global warming; the very fragility of marginal environments like low-lying islands and coasts, make the threat of sea level rise many times more dangerous.

Many of these shifts would happen even without any rise in sea level. But with that rise, even for optimistic scenarios, local shifts can represent tiny increments of epochal change.

Sea-level rise narrows the options within the thin bandwidth of survival in which millions living on islands and on vulnerable coasts exist. High tides and big storms, heavy rain and prolonged drought, coral acidification and fish migration, become a big worry.

If you live in the Maldives, your soundtrack is the sea. Populated Male, where the buildings are like barnacles in a dense cluster, is less than 6 sq km. The sea is never far; it even foams up through the gutters in the lower lying west at full spring tide. At any given moment, across these islands, the water table is just a few centimetres below the ground and habitation just a few above the sea.

There are some futuristic visions of engineered cities in the Maldives - like giant oil rigs supporting tens of thousands of people, with markets, cinema theatres, malls, and landing pads. But that would cost billions of dollars, which the Maldives does not have and the international community is unlikely to give.

As a result the Maldives - and other low-lying island states - whose greenhouse gas emissions are almost negligible, and who have few resources of their own, will be the first to face the waves of a warmer world.

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