BEAU VALLON, Seychelles // The beach here used to be full of bronzed tourists sunning themselves on the cream-coloured sand. But in the past decade, the rising sea level has taken a bite out of this spectacular strip of shore. Now, the tourists cram on to a narrow sliver of beach between the turquoise water and the wall that protects the resort hotels from the rising sea. Locals recall a time when there was much more beach to go around.
"The water used to be farther out," said Michael Espron, 32, a scuba-diving instructor at a local hotel. "Soon, the water will be right up into the hotel. It will definitely affect tourism. They come here to get a suntan on the beach, but if the sea continues to rise, they won't be able to get to the beach." Like other island states, the Seychelles, a country of 155 picturesque islands in the Indian Ocean, is on the front lines of climate change. Rising temperatures and the melting of polar ice caps are blamed for raising ocean levels and threatening to destroy the nation's pristine coastline - the country's No 1 tourist attraction. Some of the archipelago's low-lying islands could be fully submerged if the rise continues.
Tourists are not the only ones threatened by global warming. A gradual increase in sea temperature is killing coral reefs and endangering a rare species of sea turtle that nests on the Seychelles' beaches. The government, one of the most environmentally conscious in the world, is leading the call to curb carbon emissions that scientists say contribute to global warming. But the states like the Seychelles most affected by climate change are up against the world's superpowers, whose polluting industries drive the global economy.
James Michel, the president, appealed to industrial nations to rein in polluting greenhouse gases at the UN climate meeting in Copenhagen in December. A coalition of small island states put forth a proposal to cap carbon emissions and limit global warming to 2°C. "I am not here to celebrate the limited progress, but to speak out once again, as we have always done, of our fight for survival, our human right to exist," the president said in a speech at the conference.
To the Seychellois, the Copenhagen summit did not go swimmingly. The world failed to set legally binding targets for reducing polluting gases and some say real action was put off until the next climate conference, in Mexico, this year. "It was a big disappointment that governments did not show leadership," said Rolph Payet, who is the environmental adviser to Mr Michel and attended the Copenhagen talks. "Next time is just going to be another talk shop unless real action happens now."
Mr Payet's office is next door to the president's, an indication of the Seychellois' acute concern about the environment. The global warming message is also a mainstay of local media. "Not long ago, Seychelles was one of the small island states who went on screaming at the Copenhagen conference, pleading for the rich men's club to hear our call that our survival depends greatly on their commitment to save our plant," Christopher Lespoir wrote in a column in The People, a local newspaper. "I feel it was sad and disappointing to see that the market, profit and the economy won over life."
Other island countries are also concerned with the rising sea level. The Maldives, the Seychelles' Indian Ocean neighbour, recently held a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu has talked about moving its citizens to New Zealand, making them the world's first climate refugees. Ninety per cent of the Seychelles' population of 80,000 people lives on Mahe, a granitic island with rugged mist-shrouded peaks covered in tropical vegetation. Most of downtown Victoria, the country's laid-back capital, as well as the port and airport, were built on reclaimed land and are a few metres above the sea. A predicted two-metre rise in sea level over the next century could easily swamp the country's infrastructure.
Dozens of the Seychelles' coral outer islands are uninhabited but are important habitats for birds and marine life. If the sea-level rise continues unchecked, those islands could soon be underwater. Global warming is also contributing to a rise in sea temperatures, which is having a devastating effect on marine ecosystems. The endangered sea turtle is especially vulnerable, according to Jeanne Mortimer, a US biologist who has studied sea turtles in the Seychelles for much of the past 30 years.
Temperature determines the sex of sea turtles and warmer beaches are causing more females to be born and the imbalance puts the whole population at risk. In the sleepy beach town of Beau Vallon, Mr Espron, the diving instructor, has had a hard time drumming up business as the reefs deteriorate. "We get less and less divers," he said. "Back when it was beautiful, the diving was good everywhere. The divers loved it. Now, for good diving, you really have to choose your spot."