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22. Maldives Geofact Sheet

Geo Factsheet
Number 296
The Maldives: on the frontline of
climate change
The Maldives is an archipelago nation situated in the Indian Ocean. A beltway of 1200 tiny islands, dotted within 26 concentric atolls,
stretches for 750 kilometres off the south-west tip of India down to the equator. Whilst sovereign control covers an area of around 90,000
square kilometres, over 99% of this area is ocean, with just 300 square kilometres of habitable land. Only 340,000 people live in the
Maldives, and around one third of these live in the capital city of Male’ (pronounced Mar-lay), which is one of the most densely populated
square miles on earth. Around one hundred other islands are also inhabited, although these tend to operate under a more traditional, selfsufficient, and strictly Islamic lifestyle. A long-term dictatorship under President Maumoon Gayoom was ended in 2008, when Mohamed
Nasheed won inaugural elections to become the first democratically-elected president of the Maldives.
The Maldives is generally considered one of the most beautiful and picturesque regions in the world, which is reflected in an upmarket and
luxury tourism sector. Every year, around 700,000 tourists come for consistently hot temperatures, white sandy beaches, clear blue seas,
and fantastic marine wildlife. To accommodate guest demands for alcohol, sunbathing, and haram foods such as pork, tourist resorts are
kept strictly separate from inhabited islands.
Figure 1 Formation of the atolls in Maldives region
Changes in sea level in Maldives region
sea level
level -6
The higher the sea level rises, the
higher the sands become.
The interior lies below sea level and
is vunerable to flooding
The islands continued to grow as
storms deposit new sediment on the
beaches. The interiors of the islands
were left at a lower level
years ago
coral reef
Millions of years ago, corals began to
grow on the slopes of volcanoes,
creating reefs.
As sea levels rose after the end of the
last ice age, the coral reefs grew. The
volcanoes reroded and disappeared
The calciferous materail of dead corals
is deposited on the reefs, creating
circular islands around the sunken
Climate change poses a real and present danger to the very existence of the Maldives. The highest natural point in the entire archipelago
is just 2.4 metres, and most islands sit less than a metre above sea level. Given that waters are expected to rise by this amount in the coming
decades, the Maldives faces a very precarious and uncertain future. Many scientists believe that it could be the first country entirely
wiped off the map by climate change, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stating that the Maldives will be entirely
uninhabitable by 2100.
Even in the short term, climate change threatens to destroy the fragile coral ecosystem, on which so many livelihoods are dependant. A
reminder of its likely impacts was demonstrated by the damage caused from the overtopping of the 2004 tsunami waves. It sent the
Maldives back down to LDC status.
Geo Factsheet 296
The Maldives: on the frontline of climate change
Figure 2 Reef island features
reef flat
reef front
inner reef
inner reef
reef slope
Figure 3 Possible scale of sea level rises, caused by global warming
3(a) How high, how soon?
3(b) The predicted causes of sea level rise
German Advisory
Major ice sheets
change 300
Delta Committee
sea level 60
rise (cm)
radical mitigation
ice & glaciers
2040 2060
Figure 4 President Mohamed Nasheed
International Lobbying
The Maldivian response to climate change takes two major lines:
prevention, and preparation. Initially, efforts were focused on the
former, as politicians and other influential people attempted to spread
the climate change message on the world stage, and force action to
prevent runaway global warming. As early as 1987, President
Gayoom was warning the international community that the Maldives
may not survive the twenty-first century. In 1992, he told the United
Nations that his countrymen were “an endangered people.”
After his election in 2008 President Mohamed Nasheed continued
to beat the drum on the world stage. In one well-known publicity
stunt he held the world’s first ever underwater cabinet meeting,
seeking to highlight the plight of the Maldives. He also founded
the association for “climate vulnerable countries”, and starred in an
influential documentary, all of which have made Nasheed a hero of
the international environmental movement.
Geo Factsheet 296
The Maldives: on the frontline of climate change
Creation of Artificial Islands
Figure 5 Creation of artificial islands
Recent efforts have shifted the focus away from preventing
climate change, and towards preparing for its damaging
consequences in the country. One of the earliest practical
responses to climate change was instigated by President
Gayyoom in 1997. His government identified a shallow
lagoon near Male’ as a good site for building an island
from scratch. For the next seven years, sediment was
dredged up from the seabed and poured into this site,
creating a 2km² artificial island called Hulhumale, which
rises an impressive two metres above sea level.
(club med)
Kurumba Village
phase II
204 hectares
There is also the potential for higher sea walls to be built if
this proves insufficient. Nearly three thousand people now
live on the artificial island, and it already provides a muchneeded overspill for the densely populated city of Male’.
Eventually, the government are planning for Hulhumale to
become a major population hub for tens of thousands, so
the construction of schools, roads, and dozens of
functional, high-density tenement blocks is ongoing. Given
its rigid and practical planning, Hulhumale is dismissed by
some Maldivians as an ugly concrete jungle, which lacks
the character, culture, and community of traditional island
homes. However, it is generally recognised that the creation
of well-planned artificial islands may be the most practical
and efficient way for displaced Maldivians to stay in the
phase I (existing)
188 hectares
Existing airport
Future expansion of
airport 305 hectares
Land Reclamation and Sea Walls
Purchasing Land Abroad
One of the biggest and most expensive measures has been a
nationwide land reclamation project. Sediments dredged from island
harbours and the seabed is deposited on islands that are on the
frontline of climate change. This helps by both expanding the island
size and preventing erosion. For example, a land reclamation project
on Thulaadhoo, in Baa Atoll, has enlarged the island by 40 acres,
which has stopped flooding in the short-term, and also buys time to
prepare more sturdy and rigid sea defences.
When President Nasheed entered office in 2008 one of his most
widely-reported proposals was the creation of a flat-rate fee for all
tourist arrivals, which could be ring-fenced into a multi-million dollar
sovereign wealth fund. Eventually this money would be used to
purchase a new Maldivian homeland in an unpopulated area of
India, Sri Lanka, or Australia. In the event that the islands could not
be saved from rising sea water, and Maldivians had to evacuate the
entire country, they would already have a new place to move and
call home.
On Ihavandhoo, in Haa Alifu Atoll, a two-metre dyke is under
construction, which will eventually ring the entire island and
hopefully hold back the sea. A strong sea wall was also constructed
around the Male’ in 1987. Such projects are dependent on local
circumstances – Ihavandhoo is a very small but densely-populated
island, meaning a sea wall is both cost-efficient and feasible.
However, the vast amount of money required to hire expensive
foreign contractors with specialist equipment means building dykes
cannot be a universal solution for each of the 1200 islands in the
This idea was described as “the final insurance policy.” However, it
is unclear whether the announcement was anything more than a
way of attracting attention and publicity to the plight of the Maldives.
International Clout
The Maldives are responsible for just 0.0014% of the world’s
greenhouse gas emissions, and has a population that is scarcely
the size of Leicester, yet the battle against climate change is ultimately
a global one, and entirely outside of their sovereign control.
Figure 6 Dykes
Maldivian statesmen lack the power and influence to make the major
emitters of greenhouse gases change their ways. The sad reality is
that however hard they fight for action, their impact will be minimal.
Therefore, whilst maintaining an impressive and disproportionately
loud voice in the international climate change discourse, the Maldives
will not be able to prevent sea level rises unless more powerful and
influential countries commit themselves to the cause.
Geo Factsheet 296
The Maldives: on the frontline of climate change
Public Hostility to Projects
The challenge to fund action against climate change is simply
immense, partly because the Maldivian economy is almost entirely
reliant on two key industries: tourism and fishing. Between them
these sectors employ 88% of the workforce and account for almost
95% of government revenues. This lack of economic diversity means
that government fiscal planning is particularly vulnerable to outside
factors. Any number of uncontrollable events can affect tourist
arrivals or create global fluctuations in the price of fish, and trigger
a significant and unexpected shortfall in government revenues. For
example, a small drop in tourist numbers after the 2008/9 financial
crisis generated a significant 5% decline in national GDP for 2009,
and this meant that a number of half-finished land reclamation
projects had to cease for several months. Tourist numbers (and
therefore government revenue) similarly declined after both the 2004
Boxing Day tsunami and the period of political instability in February
As we have seen, despite its reputation for expensive luxury
holidays, the Maldives is not a particularly rich country, and remains
borderline on several UN indicators for LDC status. In 2011 the
GDP per capita was estimated at just $8600 – a figure comparable to
countries such as Ecuador or Bosnia. Many of the poorest
Maldivians react unfavourably to the multi-million dollar projects
on their doorstep, which they consider an unnecessary and wasteful
use of resources, especially given the cases of corruption that
commonly haunt such ventures.
This problem is particularly severe because climate change is not
universally accepted as a genuine threat. Until 1998 there was only
one secondary school outside the capital city, which means many
older Maldivians lack the education to understand and assess the
scientific case for global warming. Similarly, many devout Maldivians
struggle to square anthropomorphic climate change with their faith
in an omnipotent god, and this has created widespread fatalistic
acceptance of the sea level situation which may befall them. Lots of
Maldivians, even the younger generations, therefore refuse to
support climate change action and expenditure, either because they
do not accept that global warming is happening, or else think it
would be foolish and impossible to resist the will of Allah.
Figure 7
Other services
Political Opportunism
A number of opportunistic politicians have successfully exploited
public uncertainty about climate change, and fuel some very
persistent rumours that global warming is nothing more than a
conspiracy perpetrated by Western scientists against their country.
After 2008 politicians from opposition parties found this to be an
excellent strategy to cleave into the record of President Nasheed’s
government, taking the focus away from some popular health and
welfare reforms. A few super wealthy resort owners, unhappy with
Nasheed’s attempts to implement a higher tourist tax, have also
capitalised on the climate change agenda. These individuals have
always enjoyed a significant influence in the national political scene,
and some were even accused of instigating events that led to
Nasheed leaving office in February 2012. The combination of public
opposition to climate change projects, and wealthy backing for
their opponents, is reflected in the election of many sceptic MPs
who have sought to cut expenditure in the area.
Although successive governments have sought to diversify the
economy and increase GDP, only a limited amount of options are
available to them. The landscape and topography of the Maldives
is not suited to intensive agricultural or industrial development,
and there are very few natural resources that can be exploited. Nor
is it particularly easy to impose tax increases; a higher tariff proposed
by President Nasheed was one of the factors that led to his removal
in Feburary 2012, and some influential resort owners gave financial
backing to coup leaders.
The fragile Maldivian economy is therefore the biggest internal
challenge in their internal fight to handle climate change. The
government budget is limited ($500 million in 2010) and cannot be
significantly increased, yet with the pressures of health, education
and welfare spending, the government is running at a big deficit
even before it can make provision for climate change. Meanwhile,
hundreds of inhabited islands require expensive improved defences
or land reclamation projects if they are to survive rising sea waters.
One option has been to seek foreign sponsors – after the floods of
1987 President Gayyoom secured a $60 million donation from Japan
to build a sea wall around Male’, and this has largely protected the
capital from further damage. However, such support cannot be relied
on for the sparsely-populated peripheral islands. Planners will
eventually have to make hard-nosed financial decisions on which
islands to evacuate and allow to sink, and which to develop into
hubs, capable of supporting and protecting a populace swelled by
resettlements from elsewhere.
This Geo Factsheet was researched and written by Liam Orton who spent
4 months teaching on the island of Ihavandhoo in the Maldives.
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