Safe Islands in an Ocean of Trouble: Adaptation in the Maldives

By Carina Bachofen and Edward Cameron

The Maldives is a country with many pseudonyms and identities. The great Venetian explorer Marco Polo referred to the Maldives as the “flower of the Indies”; to the scores of holidaymakers and honeymooners the island nation is popularly known as the “pearls of the Indian Ocean”. In recent years, as the grave threat of climate change has become more apparent, the Maldives has attracted a new identity – that of a nation facing an existential threat.

Vulnerability to climate change

In the short-term, the Maldives is already facing increasing exposure to extreme weather events such as seaswells and coastal erosion, both of which damage homes, infrastructure and economic development. In the medium term, exposure to increasing CO2 deposits and warming of ocean temperatures threaten the prized coral reef system, exacerbating existing human impacts from fishing, construction, pollution and tourism. In the long-term the Maldives is facing an existential crisis. The majority of the one hundred and ninety inhabited islands in the archipelago lie less than one meter above sea level. According to IPCC scenarios sea-level rise by the end of the century could be as much as ninety centimeters. If this proves correct the nation would become uninhabitable.

Of course vulnerability is also conditioned by sensitivity to risk. Tourism, a sector highly sensitive to climate risks, is the main economic activity of the Maldives. Between 1995 and 2006, the tourism sector accounted for an average of 30% of GDP and directly employed 17,000 individuals. Moreover, it provided indirect employment and other livelihood opportunities in transport, communication, agriculture and construction. Tourism is also a significant source of government revenues, enabling expenditure on education, health and other public services and utilities. 45% of tourist resorts currently suffer from beach erosion.

Fishing is the second dominant industry in the Maldives. More than 20% of the population depends on fisheries as the major income earning activity with approximately 16,000 people directly employed and thousands more in post-involved in post-harvest activities. In 2005, tuna and tuna-related species accounted for approximately eighty nine percent of the total fish catch and tuna products provided US$97 million in export revenue.

In search of climate resilience

Maldivians could be forgiven for being fatalistic about the country’s prospects in a climate-constrained world. However, in recent years successive governments have spearheaded a series of innovative measures designed to enhance resilience.

The government has combined investments in hard and soft adaptation options to meet the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable. At one extreme is the design of hard engineering solutions to protect vital transport and communications infrastructure; secure vital energy and water utilities; and protect to coastline from flooding and sea-swells. The elaborate tetrapod flood defense system on the capital island, which cost an estimated US$150m is one example of this, as are the technical studies that are assessing ways to safeguard regional airports and the main international airport in Male’. Soft adaptation options include the development of coastal zone management training kit and training course in the Maldives College for Higher Education, with the aim of improving institutional capacity and enhancing the skills of those engaged in planning and the preparation of land-use regulations.

The government’s “safe island” program is an example of adaptation interventions that realize co-benefits with sustainable development. Essentially the “safe islands” have become a synonym for population consolidation on islands that are larger, better protected from natural disasters, and more economic in terms of public investments in utilities, infrastructure, housing, and services. The safe islands would have quick access to air travel; coastal protection sufficient space for subsequent population growth; potential for expansion; proximity to another island; a viable economy; and access to social services.

Enabling policies designed to protect tourism and fisheries include encouraging product diversification by the tourism industry away from sole dependence on beaches and reefs and moving towards cultural, sporting and adventure attractions such as sailing and other water sports. In addition, the government has developed a capacity enhancement plan to overcome existing shortcomings in the sector’s approach to adaptation including awareness raising on the economic impacts of climate risks, training on risk preparedness and response, and institutional support geared to opening access to adaptation financing. In the fisheries sector adaptation policies seek to draw upon traditional knowledge of reef fisheries management; provide incentives for research, demonstration and deployment of alternative bait fishing and bait breeding options; and assess the benefits of “no-take zones” to the overall health of Maldivian fisheries.

Moving forward in troubled waters

The success of adaptation in the Maldives is dependent on multiple variables, some of which can be controlled internally, while others are determined at the global level. In terms of internal variables the success of adaptation will depend on domestic support. The government has been careful to construct adaptation policies in an inclusive manner with consultations proceeding throughout the atolls and on individual islands; detailed discussions across economic sectors, and a series of planning meetings with donors.

The real problem lies at the global level. In the old adage adaptation is managing the unavoidable and mitigation is avoiding the unmanageable. The nature of adaptation in the Maldives will be conditioned by the emergence of an urgent and ambitious global regime for reducing greenhouse gases and by the scale of financing to support adaptation in developing countries. Both are currently sadly lacking. The continuing deadlock in the climate negotiations seriously undermines attempts to build resilience in this small island nation. Today adaptation in the Maldives often resembles a plan in search of funding; just as the global climate architecture seems like a crisis in search of a serious response.