Page last updated at 15:17 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

The Maldives' battle against extinction

Maldives view
No part of the Maldives lies more than 2m (6.5 ft) above sea level

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed hopes nations most vulnerable to climate change will set an example to richer countries. Charles Haviland reports on plans to make the Maldives "carbon-neutral" by 2020.

On a cloudy day in the Baa atoll of the northern Maldives, I took a speedboat ride across a choppy sea.

No part of the Maldives lies more than about 2m (6.5 ft) above sea level. And at least 50 of the 200 inhabited islands already suffer from the problem of coastal erosion. I was heading for one of them.

Thulhadhoo is quite a bleak place, not like the islands given over to luxury resorts. A few thousand families here earn a living from fishing or from selling lacquerwork crafts.

I can't explain natural things. But it's getting worse and worse all the time
Khadija Abdurrahman

The sandy soil was getting looser, threatening buildings, Mohamed Usman, the island's chief official, told me. Rising sea levels were eroding the coast. Because of this, some jetties had had to be extended - not out into the sea, but extended inland.

At a football pitch a few hundred metres in from the dazzlingly turquoise sea, there are lots of unfinished homes with breezeblocks and graffitti on the walls - messages like "Ronaldo Rox". Beyond the pastel-coloured houses sits the sparkling mosque, Thulhadhoo's most impressive building.

Land eroding

Heavy rains descend on us and we take refuge in a house where children watch television in the front room. A woman in her 80s, Khadija Abdurrahman, welcomes us in.

The land is eroding, eroding, eroding, she laments.

"I can't explain natural things," she says. "But it's getting worse and worse all the time."

She hopes for solutions including land reclamation. But, we are told, land has already been reclaimed in the past and that, too, is eroding.

The Maldives' charismatic young president is adept at highlighting their problem. Last month he staged an underwater cabinet meeting, making world headlines.

In the capital, Malé, the housing and environment minister, Mohamed Aslam, tells a group of visiting journalists that by the year 2100, the Maldives as he knows it may no longer exist.

"Just the sea level rise itself is going to drown most of our islands," he warns.

Jetties have had to be extended inland

"We might have some land above water. But the effects of rising sea levels itself is going to cause salinisation of groundwater, which will affect vegetation on land, the livelihood of the people. It's a number of things."

As its own gesture the Maldives now aims to go "carbon-neutral" by 2020. That means switching to renewable energy sources where it can, and balancing the carbon it does emit through measures like planting forests elsewhere.

There is a major problem - the islands' main earner, top-end tourism, cannot be environmentally friendly. All the clients, and all manner of extraordinary luxury foods from Europe and elsewhere, are flown in.

But President Mohamed Nasheed says practices can still change.

"I'm not trying to defend decadence and the good life," he says, laughing. "Of course that's going to harm the environment."

But, he says, rather than changing people's behaviour, better to change the way energy is produced or water is used.

"We can't ask you to stop driving, however much we may want to do that. But we are trying to achieve a balance where it is less harmful."

Green luxury

While critical of rich countries for not doing more about climate change, he also thinks it is useless to expect them to bear the whole burden of curbing carbon emissions.

In Malé, youths make a monotonous city circuit on their motorbikes. Mr Aslam says he wants to wean people away from them, to walking, cycling or clean-energy vehicles. But it will take time.

The water around Malé is dirty with petroleum. The government wants the ferry boats to use cleaner power. It is also setting up a wind farm which it hopes will cut the country's carbon emissions by a quarter - even though it is not a windy place.

Some luxury resorts are also going green. At one, Soneva Fushi - reached by not-very-green sea plane - solar panels are being installed.

Its environmental manager, Anke Hofmeister, shows the BBC a special oven in which waste wood is heated and made into charcoal or into biochar, a fine charcoal they use in gardening as it is said to improve soil productivity.

Fish is a big earner in the Maldives

"The biochar contains the carbon which is not taken up again. So this carbon can be locked in the soil for a few thousand years," she says, explaining that this practice may earn the status of a "carbon sink" to be used in carbon trading.

The resort is also experimenting in using cold sea water, from 300 metres down, to cool the rooms. The water is pumped up and distributed around the resort island, then channelled into fan-coil units, says Ms Hofmeister.


"So you use the cooling capacity of the sea water which is always readily available, and we use this for air conditioning."

Back on Thulhadhoo, a radio in the street announces prayer time.

These islanders face an immediate danger. With seven surviving children and their descendants, Khadija Abdurrahman would like to see a brighter future.

Initiatives like cleaner technology, the whole carbon-neutral plan, cannot eliminate that peril. The government is already taking other measures, like building artificial and higher islands.

It even has contingency plans to evacuate the entire population somewhere else. But it sees this as an extreme scenario, one it hopes will not be necessary.

In the meantime this tiny country hopes other vulnerable states will follow its lead on carbon emissions, thereby setting an example to richer nations.

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