The Maldives is in many ways a unique place and its tectonic history is no exception. Peeping above the surface of the Indian Ocean, the 26 rings, or atolls, of a total of slightly under 1200 islands are the highest points of the mid-section of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge that extends as an undersea plateau from the Lakshadweep Islands of India north of the Maldives downwards to the Chagos Archipelago that lies south of the country. The ridge, and hence the islands, was formed by the Réunion hotspot and acts as a volcanic trace of it. It goes without saying that the past volcanic activity of the hotspot gave rise to the location of the Maldives today, just north of the Equator which, in turn, determined the climate experienced there. The unique geography of the Maldives has imposed upon its inhabitants a way of life that is very much influenced by their interaction with their environment. A myriad of human-environment relationships are noticeable upon setting foot in the country and perhaps even before landing; the many water bungalow resorts that dot its islands’ coastlines are telling of the extent to which tourism contributes to the local economy (30% of its GDP, in fact). These relationships manifest themselves in a variety of forms – urban land use, waste management, disaster management as well as dealing with weather and climate in general.In the local islands of the Maldives, as opposed to the resort islands, where relatively sizeable numbers of people live, competition for land use is a striking feature. In its capital of Male, the most built-up of all the islands, it is not uncommon to find buildings of very different functional natures existing side by the side. The juxtaposition of a local prison and a primary school is but one instance of an odd scattering of buildings around the island. This comes as little surprise, however, given the pressure upon an island with an area of merely 5.8 square kilometres and a population of around 153 379, rendering it one of the most densely populated islands in the world, with a population density more than 3 times that of Singapore’s. Land scarcity in and by itself is not the problem; the Maldives has an abundance of land, after taking into account hundreds of uninhabited islands that exist up and down the length of the country. Male, being the capital city, necessarily subsumes various main political, administrative, economic and social functions in its jurisdiction. Residents of Male have had to suffer the consequences of unfettered land use confined within a natural boundary in its coastline (that does not allow for urban sprawl as in continental capital cities), including high rental costs and a living environment too congested for comfort. Not all is doom and gloom though, as the government has gone so far as to reclaim whole islands such as the neighbouring Hulhumale island, opening up new space for residences together with restrictions permitting only locals to buy property there with the purpose of combating pressure exerted by land use competition. Where there are human settlements and economic activity, there will be waste. Add to this the fact that the main activity that holds up the Maldivian economy is one that guarantees a continual flow of people into the country, and it can only be expected that the supply of waste generated is just as steady. The lack of a comprehensive waste management system in the Maldives is exacerbated by the fact that each of the roughly 100 resorts on the exclusive resort islands have to manage their own waste systems. Equally, it is entirely plausible that ferry terminals at local islands host the rather unsightly image of a ferry carrying a gargantuan volume of waste being docked only metres away from one transporting commuters to other islands. Eventually, all waste from across the Maldives is dumped on Thilafushi island where a once unspoilt bay now literally overflows with waste. Even though government programmes such as a solid waste management test-bedding project at Ari Atoll seem to be making some headway to integrate solid waste management systems into local islands, empower local councils to institutionalise the training of staff skilled in the area of waste management, and educate local populations on the merits of recycling and composting, progress has been on a small scale and it is yet to be seen if this model is workable in other atolls. For now, the unsustainability of the indiscriminate dumping of waste shall continue to afflict human health and coastal ecosystems in and around Thilafushi island which has been accordingly dubbed ‘Rubbish Island’. Maldivians are a resilient lot. They weathered the devastation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which claimed 112 lives, displaced close to 30 000 and lashed out a host of problems to the environment including coastal destruction, degradation of coral reefs, extensive inundation of at least 99 outlying low-lying islands and even groundwater contamination due to the intrusion of sea water into aquifers. The impact on the local economy was glaring as well with the tourism, fisheries and agricultural sectors worst hit. Since then, the country has strengthened its national strategy to deal with potential tsunamis by improving the prediction of tsunamis through the integration of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Committee’s Tsunami Warning Centres as well as by boosting protection through rallying communities to conserve vegetation as a soft engineering mechanism to water down the impact of tsunamis. Today, the physical effects of the tsunami may be largely unnoticeable. In any case, it remains to be seen if the Maldives will be able to better deal with other tsunamis of the same magnitude as the 2004 tsunami, which might prove to be a challenge considering that the scattered nature of its islands and populations makes for a difficult environment to communicate information and coordinate efforts when the need arises.
Under normal weather conditions, strong winds and frequent rainfall events are a part and parcel of daily life in the Maldives, during the period of the South West monsoon in the summer months of the Northern Hemisphere. A lack of elevated relief to induce a rainshadow effect coupled with exposure to the vast, open waters of the Indian Ocean allow the Maldives to experience almost the full brunt and force of the South East Trades that get deflected as South Westerlies in the Northern Hemisphere due to the Coriolis effect. Given the small size of the islands, the rainfall events, while frequent, usually last merely from 5 to 15 minutes. The monsoon is, nonetheless, an important feature of the climate as it helps to recharge subsurface aquifers where groundwater accumulates. Groundwater is an essential source of freshwater for the people of the Maldives since the relief of their small islands does not favour river development.Perhaps the most daunting of environmental challenges borne out of human-environment interactions that the Maldives faces is one that shall come to affect us all – anthropogenic climate change. The Maldives, unfortunately, is in a position where it faces an existential crisis as it stands to lose out more than other countries would, for their very physical existence is at risk due to rising sea levels. The 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the world’s leading authority on the subject, published in October 2014 warned of the unequivocal warming of the climate system and that sea levels had already risen on average by 3.2mm per year between 1993 and 2010 globally. Sustained global warming at projected rates will result in a further rise in sea levels due various factors including melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica as well as the warming and expansion of oceans themselves. This is particularly serious for a collective of low-lying islands such as the Maldives especially since the highest natural point of elevation in the country is merely 2.4 metres above sea level. Aerial photographs make it easy to deduce that the beaches of a typical Maldivian island spread outwards for tens or perhaps even hundreds of metres from the coastline in a very gentle gradient. Extensive inundation due to climate change may not occur as quickly as it would if due to a tsunami but it is certainly far from unfathomable. The effects of climate change will creep up on the Maldives as rainfall intensifies and becomes more frequent as well. Already, the government has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2019 by eliminating fossil fuel use through drastically increasing dependence on renewable energy, for instance. It hopes to pave the way for other nations to do the same. Unfortunately, so long as the countries with the world’s biggest carbon footprints such as China and the United States do not heed Maldivian calls for tough action on climate change, the fate of the country seems to be sealed – a truly pitiable future for a country so majestically endowed with captivating natural beauty that its people are not only proud of but are also dependent on for their livelihood. The fossil coral reefs of the Maldives tell a story that dates back to the early parts of the Holocene epoch, as their uranium contents offer clues about past climatic conditions. Whether the bountiful, colourful Maldivian corals of today will tell the story of worsening global warming when they are fossilised and discoloured thousands of years from now is dependent on how driven the international community will be in tackling climate change.
While the Maldives faces environmental challenges that are due to their own human interaction with the physical environment in ways that pose problems for the country that they themselves can largely take into their own hands, climate change is one challenge that the Maldives will not be able to solve single-handedly. Hence, the Maldives serves as a timely and pertinent reminder that while we may think that our identities are very much defined by our geographical and political boundaries, the Earth does indeed belong to all of us and our stake in it could not be higher, at least for the sake of the people of the Maldives – for their livelihood and their heritage, natural or otherwise.
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