Disappearing Maldives in market for new homeland

Residents are looking for land to call home if global warming causes it to disappear into the sea.

The Maldives' president Mohamed Nasheed says his government is to start putting aside part of its billion-dollar annual tourism income in case the worst happens.
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The Maldives has sun, palm trees and white sandy beaches that are world renowned. But now, the Indian Ocean archipelago is looking for one more distinguishing feature: a new land to call home if global warming finally causes it to disappear into the sea. Mohamed "Anni" Nasheed, who won the Maldives' first democratic presidential election last month, says his government is to start putting aside part of its billion-dollar annual tourism income in case the worst happens.

The 1,192 coral islands that make up the country risk devastation by rising sea levels caused by climate change. Home to around 330,000 Sunni Muslims, the Maldives lies an average of just 1.5 metres above sea level and some observers have predicted it could disappear within a century. "We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere," Mr Nasheed was quoted as saying by a British newspaper, The Guardian.

"It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades." The president said he had already raised the subject with several countries and found them to be "receptive". India and Sri Lanka are on the list of consideration because they have similar cultures and climates; Australia is another option.

Mr Nasheed said he intended to create a "sovereign wealth fund" from the money generated by tourism, which attracts an average of 500,000 people per year, some of whom pay more than US$1,000 (Dh3,670) a night to stay in the most exclusive resort islands. Mr Nasheed compared his proposal with the way some Arab states used their oil revenues. "Kuwait might invest in companies; we will invest in land," he said.

A UN climate panel forecasts a 59cm rise in global sea levels by 2100, threatening large parts of the archipelago. The Maldives, which lie 800km south of the tip of India, have already suffered from their low-lying status. Scores of islanders were killed and thousands left homeless after the devastating 2004 tsunami, and many of those displaced are still living as refugees on other islands within the Maldives.

The authorities are attempting to make certain islands less vulnerable to climatic extremes and rising sea levels by dredging the surrounding reef area and using sand to raise the height of the land. Residents living on some of the other inhabited islands, of which there are 193 in total, are being encouraged to move to the "safe islands" on which work has been carried out. However, officials recognise that this multimillion-dollar scheme, which will ultimately benefit 13 islands in total and is largely funded by overseas aid, will not be able to cope with the effects of global warming in the long term.

Moreover, the planting of tens of thousands of trees to stem coastal erosion and offer protection in the case of severe weather is not seen as a permanent solution to the global warming crisis. The outgoing president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving leader, published a book in April that highlighted the threat to the Maldives. He said at the time that the country could adapt to the problem only by relocating citizens to safer islands. The alternative - building protective walls on the inhabited islands - was too expensive.

During his time in power, Mr Gayoom had been vocal at international conferences in calling for worldwide action to combat climate change and was a vociferous supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, the international accord that aims to limit carbon emissions by many of the world's developed countries. Late last month Mr Nasheed won the second round of a presidential battle with Mr Gayoom, who had been in power since 1978 and was seeking a seventh term in office.

While an opposition figure, Mr Nasheed was jailed on several occasions by the Gayoom regime on what critics of the former president described as trumped-up charges. dbardsley@thenational.ae