A new Maldives


In November, Mohamed Nasheed, in the immediate aftermath of being voted in as the new president of the Maldives, announced plans to purchase a new homeland for his country's roughly 350,000 citizens. Concerned that rising sea levels caused by global warming could submerge the atolls, President Nasheed announced that his government was considering buying land from other countries – notably India, Sri Lanka and Australia – as an "insurance measure" to protect citizens from ending up in environmental refugee camps. For this purpose, President Nasheed said that Male would begin to set aside a yet-undisclosed portion of his government's revenue from tourism in a sovereign wealth fund.

President Nasheed's Global Warming Relocation Fund (a plan that has actually been discussed for several years under the previous government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom) may sound drastic, but the Maldives has already tried other options, which have proven costly. For instance, starting in the early 1990s, an artificial buffer was constructed to protect Male from rising sea levels. The barrier consists of a series of structures known as tetrapods, concrete blocks that can be stacked together in interlocking rows to form a wall. The wall has gaps to allow sea water to pass through, while the size of the structure allows it to absorb the force of waves and protects the shoreline from storm surges. This massive project came with a hefty price tag, however, costing a total of USD 63 million, even while the efficacy of the barrier is still debated today. Based on this experience, President Nasheed argues that the high cost of expanding the wall to circumvent the country's 200 inhabited islands would be far more expensive and complex than relocating the entire population.

Yet the relocation fund faces significant obstacles. Economically, the fund's main revenue source – tourism – is sensitive to shocks, as was witnessed following the tsunami of December 2004. And despite the fact that tourism makes up a third of the country's gross domestic product, fewer tourists are likely to visit the island's beaches and luxury resorts during a global economic downturn, a trend that is already visible. Furthermore, climate change would undoubtedly lead to beach erosion, more powerful storms and loss of biodiversity; when coupled with the very real anxieties about the imminent swamping of the atolls, this could have a devastating impact on the tourism industry.

Politics too will play a role, both at home and abroad. President Nasheed will find it immensely difficult to fund the potential relocation of future generations, with 21 percent of Maldivians currently living below the poverty line. In addition, the countries being considered for the relocation are currently facing similar climate-change challenges, albeit not quite as pressing as for the Maldives population. In India, roughly seven million people along the coasts would be displaced if global temperatures were to rise by two degrees Celsius, an increase considered likely by many climate scientists. Similarly, severe flooding and natural disasters stemming from climate change have become common phenomena in Sri Lanka, undermining the government's capacity to absorb a massive influx of people from the Maldives. Meanwhile, neither New Delhi nor Colombo has responded, at least publicly, to President Nasheed's relocation plans – which, it must be said, have yet to be fleshed out in any great detail.

A global response
It is clear that the Maldives cannot successfully relocate its entire population on its own. Nor should it have to do so. Migration stemming from climate change is a global problem that will only increase, and as such it warrants a global response, including on the basis of case-by-case requirements. The international community must now take several concrete measures in order to help the governments of such countries adapt to the effects of climate change. A prime opportunity for this exists when the Kyoto Protocol expires, in 2012. The international community should incorporate adaptation assistance into Kyoto's successor agreements, which are aimed to be in place by December 2009 (the last major conference on what that agreement would look like was held in December in Poland). Such aid would fund initiatives and measures designed to reduce a society's vulnerability to the impact of climate change, such as rising sea levels and variability in rainfall. In the case of the Maldives, these types of earmarked monies could fund infrastructure investments such as the storm-surge barriers or 'coastal sand supplements' that have long been successfully used in the Netherlands. With significant financial aid upfront, the government could implement the best adaptation strategy for the Maldives, one that preserves the territorial integrity of the country and pays off long into the future.

In addition to creating provisions for adaptation aid, the international community should expand the definition of refugees under international humanitarian law to include environmental refugees. Despite President Nasheed's stated worries, this could ultimately prove to be extremely important for Maldivians (and others), particularly as a stopgap measure. Recognition under international law would enable environmental refugees to get access to assistance such as food, shelter and health clinics through governments and international organisations. Neighbours should also revisit their immigration policies toward countries more affected by climate change. For instance, at the request of Koloa Talake, the prime minister of Tuvalu, an island nation of some 12,000 inhabitants in the South Pacific, New Zealand agreed a few years back to change its immigration policies in order to admit 75 Tuvaluans each year into the country. (As with the Maldives, Tuvalu is also currently in talks with Australia regarding relocation due to climate-change anxieties.) Such a gradual integration of potential environmental refugees would certainly be easier to manage for any country than would a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of people. It would also be more legally palatable: at the moment, after all, there are no legal mechanisms for one country to 'host' another country.

Ultimately, perhaps President Nasheed's plan was deliberately sensational, with the simple aim of underlining the extent and immediacy of the problem faced by countries such as his own. While the regional neighbours can play an important role in assisting the Maldives, it is the developed countries that must now take the lead on this issue. As the chief source of the greenhouse-gas emissions that are causing global warming, developed countries have a moral obligation to assist those suffering the consequences of climate change. A country such as the Maldives subsequently offers a potent test case. Increasing adaptation aid and recognising environmental refugees are the first step in helping such countries safely adapt to the impact of global warming. Crucially, figuring out integrated, long-term plans for situations such as that of the Maldives would also set the foundation for dealing with the inevitable ramifications as climate change continues, from flooding in Bangladesh to melting glaciers in the Himalayas to drought in the Gangetic plain.

~ Arpana Pandey and Arathi Rao are research associates at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

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