Drop anchor or drift away? The threat of sea-level rise is forcing the island nation of the Maldives to confront an obliterated future—and all options for survival are on the table
By Bucky McMahon
IT’S 5 A.M., THE TREMULOUS HOUR, and I’m reading by lamplight at the tiny hotel-room desk when the predawn adhan, the Muslim prayer song, begins. The five-times-daily serenade, beautifully sung, is one of my favorite things about Malé, capital of the Maldives. That and the absence of dogs, which are banned throughout this Islamic republic. Not that I don’t love dogs. It’s just that there’s no room for them here, and it’s an undeniable relief not to see them dodging traffic and starving on the margins. Last night I had coffee with a local cleric, Ibrahim Nasrullah, who told me that every night a great tidal wave rises up in the sea and begs God’s permission to destroy the sinners on shore. But God in his mercy holds it back another day. This morning I feel it out there, the dark smothering force coiled to strike, and hear the singer singing what a brinkman’s game life has always been.
Obviously, I suffer from mal de Malé, which most visitors to the Maldives—the Maldives of stilted huts and palm-shaded luxury—avoid by never setting foot in the capital. Here, the paved-paradise, all-human future is now; it’s down to two: God and man. (I exaggerate; there are pigeons.) Maybe the singer is celebrating that exclusive relationship with Allah, but he sounds like a soul-sore troubadour to me, like Hank warbling of lonesome whistles. Resist the temptation to despair, he seems to sing, while his melody slips hopelessness under the door.
I’m here to write about the end of the world—or at least the end of this world—and climate change, that big bummer blackening the horizon. Remote from anywhere (the closest neighbor is India, 500 kilometers to the northeast), this archipelago of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean now confronts the possibility—some scientists say the certainty—of becoming the world’s first modern sovereign nation to be forced to evacuate due to a man-made environmental catastrophe.
Science says: This thing’s coming, deal with it. And the president of the Maldives—its first democratically elected president—Mohamed Nasheed, is attempting to deal. His idea? Invest millions into a sovereign-wealth fund to purchase a new homeland—an insurance policy in the event that rising seas force a mass evacuation of these low-lying isles.
The long-term outlook is bleak indeed. Scientists warn that Arctic ice is melting faster and that sea-level increases will be more severe—and occur sooner—than predicted. The prognostication of a half-meter rise by the end of the century has risen to a full meter—more than sufficient to inundate the Maldives, where the average elevation is (you guessed it!) a mere meter above the waterline.
So the president’s plan may not be quite so hysterical as it sounds. The Maldives hopes to raise the exodus fund from its billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry, much of it of the $1,500-a-night Brangelina variety. In this, the Maldives is caught in a classic catch-22. The country desperately depends upon the carbon-powered prosperity that’s heating up the atmosphere and raising sea levels. So do we all. But Nasheed believes the Maldivians can’t just wait and see how it all turns out.
No wonder, then, that Nasheed can seem schizophrenic when faced with global economic psychosis, in which the economy and the environment—actually, two facets of one entity, like Jekyll and Hyde—pretend not to recognize each other. The president wants the Maldives to become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2020. Though the cost of the proposed refit—155 wind turbines, half a square kilometer of rooftop solar panels, biomass plants burning coconut husks—would exceed the expected revenue for the homeland fund, it makes twisted sense for the young leader to promote both. His mix of Barnum and Cassandra is pure “negative capability” in the Keatsian sense: the worst-case scenario abiding with the best. Mitigate or migrate, as one Maldivian put it. If migrate it be, Nasheed has mentioned Sri Lanka, India, and Australia as possible landing zones in his leap of faith. What I’m wondering is, which Maldives does Nasheed hope can be transported across the sea? In my two weeks here, I’ve seen many. There’s the urban Maldives of Malé and the Maldives of the famous resorts. There’s the traditional Maldives of fishermen and their families, and then there’s Hulhumalé—the new Malé—a vast artificial island, as yet largely unoccupied but probably the best real back-up plan. I have an appointment to speak with President Nasheed about his epic vision, and in the meantime I’ve been seeing a little of all these Maldives.
My daily stroll takes me to the eastern point of Malé, where multitudes gather to watch the sunrise. Between a makeshift surfers’ club and the spiraling monument to the 2004 tsunami victims, there’s a vestigial fingernail of beach and a quality surf break. Here or near about, in the year 1153, the hero Abdul Barakat Yoosuf al Barbary defeated the sea demon Rannamaari. According to the legend, the beast would splash ashore once a month, demanding the kingdom’s most beautiful maiden. Barakat, an intrepid Berber from distant Arabia, approached the king of the Maldives with a plan. Disguised as the sacrificial virgin, he kept vigil on the shore all night, reading aloud from the Koran and imposing the order of Islam on the chaos of the sea. The king, astonished and impressed to find Barakat alive, converted his realm to the faith of Mohammed, and so the Maldives has remained ever since.
Nearly a millennium later, the hero Mohamed Nasheed—known affectionately as “Anni”—defeated the land-monster Maumoon Gayoom with the secular creed of multiparty democracy. It was a comparably momentous victory of belief against chaos, a turning point in the history of the Maldives. By most credible accounts, Gayoom was a corrupt and brutal dictator who, during his 30-year reign, silenced all opposition with his National Security Service and rampant imprisonment and torture. A master of Orwellian doublespeak, the dictator strutted upon the world stage as an environmentalist while befouling the once-pristine Maldives with ill-conceived and unregulated construction projects that enriched first his family and then his cronies. He bemoaned the poverty of his people while living lavishly himself—gold-plated toilet and all.
Nasheed, now 43, opened the battle in 1990 at age 23 with anti-Gayoom critiques published in the magazine Sangu, which he had co-founded despite dire risk of torture. Sangu would be banned within the year, with young Nasheed accused of sedition and hauled off to jail for the first of 23 times. He would be beaten, served food laced with broken glass and laxatives, and confined for months in medieval shackles. Eventually, Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience. In and out of prison, or operating in exile, Nasheed and the Maldivian Democratic Party gradually marshaled enough international support to embarrass Gayoom into reform.
Even with free elections, though, few believed the MDP could defeat Gayoom. But Nasheed understood the feudal nature of Malé, with its control by powerful clans, and knew that if he could turn the vote of one influential member in each, the whole extended family might well go along. In any event, the election was a near thing, with Gayoom and his Dhivehi Rayyithunge party garnering 40 percent of the vote.
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So in 2009, the Republic of the Maldives found itself with a radical young president, Obamaesque in his charisma. Like Obama, Nasheed inherited a fiscal crisis—indeed, a laundry list of crises—and has been walking the belt-tightening walk, divesting the office of president of its most conspicuous ornamental bling. A former journalist and satirical novelist, he penned an eloquent piece for the International Herald Tribune in which he restated his proposal for a new homeland but warned that if the Maldives went under, it would be amid a general climatic apocalypse threatening the entire planet. “The Maldives,” he wrote, “is the canary in the world’s carbon coal mine.”
As Nasheed pointed out in the Tribune, the migration of a few hundred thousand Maldivian refugees may be a matter of indifference to a preoccupied industrial world, but wait until everyone else shows up. The trickle has already begun, with high seas nibbling away at the Pacific islands of Tuvalu and Kiribati and hundreds of their displaced persons migrating to New Zealand, currently the only nation accepting environmental refugees. But the nightmare waits along Asia’s river deltas and coasts, where rising seas could shift billions. After us, says Nasheed, the flood.
While the tiny nation is innocent of the greater environmental crime of massive carbon emissions, it is not yet an exemplar of green living. Indeed, it is a microcosm of an unsustainable society—running out of space, running out of potable water, running out of time. It imports nearly everything and exports only trash (recyclables, to India) and a dwindling catch of tuna. In Malé, population density has doubled since 1980; with 75 percent of the demographic under the age of 35, it has the potential to do so again in short order. Nasheed has compared the Maldives to Saudi Arabia—”They have oil, we have tourism”; like an OPEC nation, the Maldives has a toxic relationship with its primary resource.
“Dependence on one industry is always a risk,” says Ahmed Shakir, CEO of Sun Investments, part of Sun Hotels and Resorts, which owns four posh properties in the Maldives. “Tourism is the goose that laid the golden egg,” Shakir said. “The thought that this will not last forever has not yet registered.” Indeed, with the world economy recoiling from one shock after another, the luxury biz is looking particularly shaky. And while the stats for Maldives tourism are far from cataclysmic, it’s hard to experience the sheer weight of idle humanity in Malé without thinking what nobody’s saying: If the tourism industry collapses, people will starve.
HUVAFEN FUSHI—Dream Island—is the sort of intimate, high-end resort that has the aesthetic wisdom to understate its extravagances and stay out of the way of the spectacular natural beauty for which the Maldives is justly famous. The contrast with Malé is absolute and momentarily disorienting. Arriving by speedboat, you see only a modest well-built dock, a fringe of snow-white sand, and the emerald green of the coconut-palm grove. Shaded paths lead you through gardens to the amenities, which include a wine cellar and tasting room where you can spend up to $39,000 for a single bottle. On a day trip, I was treated to a session in the underwater spa. Oiled, rubbed, and soothed to somnolence by a Thai masseuse plying traditional Maldivian coconut palm–wood massage tools, I tottered off in a terrycloth robe for reflection time in a curtained aquarium chamber suffused with turquoise light. There, I sprawled on a comfy window seat, munched some fruit, and admired the brilliantly colored fish as they flitted among spurs of live coral that had been wedged into a substrate of coral rock some dozen feet below the surface.
The setting was right out of James Bond; had I been 007, my masseuse would’ve poked her pretty head through the curtains and leapt coltishly onto the chaise longue. A few double entendres later, and I’d have coaxed a key bit of intel as to the identity of the arch-villain whose diabolical plan is to drown the world as we know it, beginning with these treasured isles.
Alas, reality asserted itself. The villain is all of us, helplessly entangled in the global web of getting and spending. Still—as old Adam said—the fruit was good, and the uncanny view, shot through with sunlight shading out to deeper blues, invited a meditation on the new Atlantis, which may well be the fate of these Maldives. Dark as the long-term prognosis may be, the devil is in the short-term details.
Mass evacuation may be half a century or more away, but resorts such as Huvafen Fushi are fighting the effects of climate change right now. The devastating El Niño of 1998 killed 70 to 90 percent of the coral in the northern Maldivian atolls. Biophilia and aesthetics aside, coral reefs are natural levees, the first line of defense against storm surges. When an island loses its “house reef,” it begins to waste away. The harbor-building spree of the Gayoom government altered and intensified currents, increasing sedimentation and further smothering coral and carrying away beaches.
Half of the islands here have already suffered major erosion, with beaches disappearing and homes falling into the sea. The weather, too, has begun to deteriorate on a day-to-day basis. The thousand-year-old weather calendar—the nakaiy—handed down through generations of Maldivian fishermen began to break down about 20 years ago. The rainy season no longer reliably brings rain, and the once-clockwork monsoons have been replaced by a chaos of unpredictable winds—which also drive the engine of erosion.
Huvafen Fushi is battening down its invaluable beaches with sandbags and a coral-replenishment program overseen by a full-time marine biologist. It’s a battle of millimeters—millimeters of coral growth versus millimeters of sea-level rise—the outcome of which is very much up in the air, or rather under water.
Back in Malé, I had a message from the president’s office saying he would definitely not be able to see me today, though tomorrow looked good. So I took some budget excursions, beginning with a 50-cent ferry ride to Hulhumalé, the man-made island, which is vast and remarkably unshaded under the equatorial sun. Built by dredge and fill on top of a six-kilometer-long shallow lagoon, Hulhumalé suffers by comparison with a natural island—man and his machines being unable to accomplish in a matter of years what nature has wrought over eons. Next to Malé, though, it’s a beauty spot, with a seawall protecting only one side and a “natural” beach on the other. Alas, the construction of apartment buildings bears the dictator Gayoom’s stamp of grandiosity and impracticality. Multistoried and small-windowed, they appear somewhat Stalinesque stacked along the straight-edged streets, the perfect future breeding ground for sweat-drenched anomie and gangland activity. Already some of the walls have been tagged with graffiti, HOTTIES.COM predominating.
Most importantly, though, Hulhumalé rises nine feet above sea level, and for the teeming population of Malé it offers blessed space. What it lacks is financing. Potential new residents are being chosen by lottery, but few can come up with the $8,000 down payment to move in. This has occasioned protests in the capital—peaceful so far. But this stalled migration, due to a lack of cash, to an island visible with the naked eye from Malé raises serious doubts about the sovereign-wealth fund and the organizational nightmare of moving everybody overseas. The bottom line is: The Maldives has no money.
What they do have is plenty of trash and nowhere to put it. Or nowhere to hide it. And given that my presidential interview had been postponed again, I hopped on a ferry for Thilafushi to see Rubbish Island for myself. A little ways out of Malé on the placid blue lagoon, I could see the plume of dirty smoke arising from the part of Thilafushi that eternally smolders. I was dreading flies and stench, but where we docked it wasn’t too bad. This was the “finished” part of the island, dating back to 1992: hard-packed and supporting a few trees, not so different from a natural industrial park—which is Thilafushi’s other identity, a place of warehouses and small-scale shipyards. I saw no DO NOT LITTER signs.
I had to hike a fair distance through steadily declining real estate to be appalled. Here, the newest acreage of Thilafushi was being born: bulldozers shifting mountains of plastic bottles and mashing the multifarious products of the opposable thumb and the neocortex into an indistinguishable mass. Nothing you couldn’t see anywhere else in the world. But it was the contrast of the gorgeous turquoise of the lagoon with the rubbish going in, the beauty that had been, that hurt the eyes. It’s an emergency dump, everything going in unsorted and unprotected—a toxic time bomb for the food chain, no doubt.
But then the Maldivians were leaving anyway. Someday. Maybe.
When at last I am summoned to the presidential building (slated to be converted to the Maldives’ first university), I share a cab, and a half-hour time slot, with a husband-and-wife team from Brazil’s Globo TV. No matter. Everyone has the same basic question: Did Nasheed really mean what he said, or was the Maldivian canary singing for foreign aid? Or both.
On the minute, Mohamed Nasheed strides briskly in, dapper in a navy-blue suit, whippet-thin, and with a surprisingly musical voice that registers his pleasure to meet us with its highest notes. He takes his seat in the glare of the TV light, looking like a bright doctoral candidate who’s confident he can field whatever questions the committee throws at him.
Mr. President, what’s up with this sovereign-wealth fund? Have you given up believing that the rest of the world will take action to avert this disaster? “In my mind the deed is already done; the beast is dead,” Nasheed says.
For a moment I think he’s referencing Rannamaari, the legendary sea demon. But he means simply that the damage has been done: “Even if we stop carbon emissions now, it’s going to be very difficult to reverse the situation.”
As for the price tag on relocation, Nasheed reframes the question—and the potential climate reparations from the world community—as a classic insurance issue, referencing Pascal’s wager and probability. He believes that continued improvement in computer simulations of climate change will show the new pattern: who is at risk, where, and when. “Anyone interested in saving for a rainy day will have to understand how much rain there will be. Then you know how much to save,” Nasheed says. “And when you spread it over a hundred years, the amount you have to save is not so much.”
But whatever the cost, could a people buy land and move to it and still be a nation?
Nasheed smiles happily. Has he not spent years in prison and in exile wondering what exactly the Maldives is, what it can become, why it is worth his life to save? A nation is its words, he believes, its stories, as much as its physical boundaries. In exile he memorized the names of all 1,190 Maldivian islands—an exercise he doesn’t recommend for anyone. But every little island, every shallow reef, has its name and its myths. These words have come from somewhere; they derive from connections elsewhere. They are transportable, and perhaps the nation with them. “Movement doesn’t, in my mind, necessarily lose the state. The state of Israel is a twentieth-century example.”
The Brazilians ask how the Maldivians have responded to the news of the president’s relocation plan. Then I ask how their newfound freedom of expression might affect the environmental movement in the Maldives—and Nasheed’s answers to both questions are strikingly similar.
The Maldivians have been astounded by the sovereign-wealth fund, just as they were astonished to find themselves suddenly living in a democracy where they could say whatever they felt—and they had to learn to speak up. “They are able to say whatever they want with regard to the environment. If we are doing anything wrong, they can come out with it. And we are going to do many things wrong. We are bound to dredge many places. We are bound to destroy a fair amount of nature. But the more there is opposition, the more the government has to be careful about what they do.”
Whatever the question, Nasheed keeps coming back to democracy—the urgency of nurturing Maldivian democracy. After all, he has seen what a dictatorship would not do. It would not do anything, because the people could not demand that it do anything.
And how about that Maldivian democracy, the Maldivian miracle—a Muslim nation making a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. Is it not a beacon to the world?
“Well, I hope so,” Nasheed says, his voice rising with emotion, underscoring the fragility of that hope. “When we came up with the movement, there was some engagement; we had a sympathetic hearing from Britain and the U.S. But we’ve had the elections, and our financial affairs are in a very bad state. India has been very generous in assisting us, but other than India, no one is interested in the Maldives. No one.”
Except, that is, on the issue of rising oceans. “Once or twice a year, we are invited to attend an important climate-change event—often as a keynote speaker. On cue, we stand here and tell you just how bad things are. We warn you that unless you act quickly and decisively, our homeland and others like it will disappear before the rising sea, before the end of this century. We in the Maldives desperately want to believe that one day our words will have an effect, and so we continue to shout them, even though, deep down, we know that you are not really listening.” ❧
BUCKY MCMAHON is the author of Night Diver, a collection of travel stories. This article was adapted with permission from the original in GQ, December 2009.