The last time I was in the island nation of the Maldives – nearly 400,000 people scattered among 1,200 tiny islands running south for a thousand miles off the tips of Sri Lanka and India – the place was on edge. It was early in 2005 and the tsunami waves had rushed over the islands just a few weeks before. Fortunately for the Maldives a combination of deep channels running between islands and the sizable coral reefs that surround many of them prevented the giant wave from sweeping its entire population into the sea. Only about 100 people were killed, far fewer than drowned on the coast of Somalia hundreds of miles further west.
I came to report on the post-tsunami impacts for the New York Times and as I wandered among the homes badly cracked by the wave and saw decades-old garbage dumps swept into the sea by waters that rushed over the islands – which rise less than six feet above sea level – everyone was talking about the possibility of another such incident. “What can we do to prevent the next wave from taking us all,” was the collective concern. “What if there is a second wave coming?”
Today I’m back for a couple weeks of scouting – we’ll shoot a documentary film here later in the year – and the subject has changed. No one is talking about tsunami waves, but everyone is talking about rising sea levels. Both are obviously legitimate concerns in a place where all of life lives just a couple feet above the sea. Talk is heightened by a variety of recent reports that sea level rise around the globe is now anticipated to come faster, reach higher … and the fact that the Maldives new president, Mohamed Nasheen, is talking louder than any elected official in the world about the need to do anything we can to slow the seas from rising. He obviously has a vested interest.
As I flew into the Maldives, President Nasheen was going public with plans to make the Maldives the first country in the nation to go “carbon neutral” by 2010. Leading by example, he hopes to wean his country – tourism is its biggest economy – away from fossil fuels and towards a mix of wind turbines, solar panels and coconut-burning back-up generators. He is not the first president to gamble on an eco-friendly policy to help promote eco-tourism, but his case may be the direst. If sea levels rise as now predicted – three feet by 2100 – his people will soon have to seriously concentrate on finding a new home (Nasheen’s predecessor talked with Australia about moving his people there; Nasheen has suggested he will look into some kind of land-for-fishing-rights swap with India or Pakistan …).
I’ll be moving around the Maldives a bit during these next two weeks, by boat and float plane, and expect to hear more from the people about their hopes and plans for the coming decades. A first sign of life here just feet above sea level: My room came complete with a life jacket … just in case.