Page last updated at 07:57 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Maldives rises to climate challenge

Sea defences in Maduvari, Maldives
Sand is dredged from the lagoon for temporary defences on Maduvari

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Maduvari, Maldives

Looking down from a sea plane flying above the Maldives, the coral islands are spread across the water like giant jellyfish emerging from the depths.

People have lived on this archipelago for 3,000 years, and from the air it looks absolutely wonderful.

But down below is the front line in the fight against sea level rise.

We land at a remote atoll - Maduvari - with Maldives Vice-President Mohamed Waheed. It is home to about 2,000 people.

The vice-president takes me to a beach that used to be a paved road 3m (15ft) wide - it has now been reclaimed by the sea. And houses nearby are crumbling into the water.

"There is a natural process, or erosion, going on," Dr Waheed says. "But that process is being worsened by changing global weather patterns."

Without the coral there is no Maldives. Instead of sea walls, the coral reefs protect the islands
Robert Tomasetti, marine biologist

"How long do you think this island can be inhabited?" I ask.

"Not more than 20 years," he says. "Then we'll have to abandon it. Children growing up in primary school now won't be able to live here."

'Big islands'

So they are fighting against the sea on Maduvari - dredging sand from the lagoon to build temporary defences.


A closer look at the damage being caused in the Maldives

But recently-elected President Mohamed Nasheed has warned that he might have to find not just a new island but a whole new country unless sea level rise can be contained. It is an existential threat.

And so this week the president announced that the Maldives hoped to become the world's first carbon neutral country within 10 years, meeting all its energy needs from renewable sources like wind and solar power.

It is a strong statement of intent, and it will probably cost $1bn to implement. But it is designed to prod the rest of the world into action.

Because if the Maldives acts alone, it will perish. So it is appealing for international cooperation while it continues to search for practical local solutions to the threat posed by rising seas.

Houses lost in the Maldives
Houses are being lost to the advancing sea
One possible solution is to build higher artificial islands.

Some 80% of the country's land mass is less than a metre above mean sea level, but on the island of Hulumale you can actually look down on the sea from a height.

There is a natural reef protecting the island, and a lagoon between the reef and the beach.

But the whole island has been raised and reclaimed using sand, concrete and shingle, to protect it from storm surges and higher tides.

Some environmental groups have concerns about the way the Hulumale project was implemented, but they argue that the basic idea could provide a solution that will allow people to continue living in the Maldives for hundreds of years.

"We're proposing big islands which are built up to three metres high in seven different parts of the country," Ali Rilwan from the NGO Bluepeace says.

"That will be enough for the entire population of 300,000 people.

President Mohamed Nasheed
President Nasheed wants the Maldives to be carbon neutral
"So the people who don't want to leave, those who don't want to become climate refugees - they can move to higher ground within the Maldives."

And then there is the country's natural defence system - the coral reefs.

A decade ago most of the coral in the Maldives was wiped out by a sudden rise in sea temperatures caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

Now small private marine research centres - many of them based at luxury resort islands - are re-growing coral and trying to understand more about its role in protecting the eco-system.

"Really very little scientific research has been done, partly because there's no university in the Maldives," says Robert Tomasetti, a marine biologist who works at the Banyan Tree Resort.

"But all the sand here is formed from the corals, the shells and the algae. Without the coral there is no Maldives. Instead of sea walls, the coral reefs protect the islands."

So new reefs, higher islands and, in the future, a decarbonised economy.

But if paradise is to be preserved, much more international help will be needed - to fund further research on local solutions, and to take decisive global action against climate change.

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