Kunahadhoo Island — On a very hot, very typical, mid-morning in the Maldives, I walked the streets of this tiny island just north of the equator.
Indian film director Shekhar Kapur, Photo: Scott Needham/Six Senses
Most of its 800 residents had gathered at the shoreline to greet visitors from a nearby island. While they focused on a first-of-a-kind beach cleanup along the rocky coast, accompanied by a drum band and dancing, I took a small walking tour looking for something the Maldives doesn’t have much of: drinking water.
(A late morning visit to its elementary school provided another interesting glimpse into island life. While most of the students raised their hands and said they knew how to swim, virtually none had ever worn a mask and snorkel, so had no idea of the rich life that surrounded their island home.)
It was quickly evident from the jury-rigged plumbing systems fitted to the exteriors of most of the one-story cement homes that the options for delivering clean water were few. Some homes had barrels for collecting rainwater; others had wells dug into the rocky island terrain. Most of them, they admitted, leaked.
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A recent news story from another Maldivian island group exemplified the problem, reporting that a dozen islands had nearly run out of water completely. Everyone on the island also admitted that if it weren’t for the arrival of the weekly cargo boat, and its bottles of water in plastic, they wouldn’t last a week on what they had in storage.
“I am very upset with the government because we need water,” 42-year-old Jameela Aboobakuru from Gaafaru had explained to the Maldives Bug. “We ran out of water, so we borrowed water from our brother. When he ran out of water we started buying bottled water imported from Male.”
She said her 12-member family was spending $22 a day to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, on a combined daily income of just $26.
“She said her 12-member family was spending $22 a day to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, on a combined daily income of just $26.”
That means 85 percent of their income was going to buy fresh water.
The response from the government in Male was that it was installing water makers in a boat that could travel from island to island to help out in such emergencies.
Just two days before my walk around Kunahadhoo, the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu had actually declared a state of emergency due to a severe shortage of fresh water. Officials in that Indian Ocean island group were reporting that some parts of the country had only two days of water left. Its tiny island of Nukulaelae reported it had just 60 liters of drinking water left for 330 people.
Like the Maldives, Tuvalu relies almost exclusively on rainwater collected from the roofs of homes and government buildings to supply a population of 10,000.
“Like the Maldives, Tuvalu relies almost exclusively on rainwater collected from the roofs of homes and government buildings to supply a population of 10,000.”
Speaking at the WaterWoMen conference I was attending on the neighboring island in Laamu Atoll, Dr. Jacqueline Chan, president of Water Charity, which helps communities around the world find clean water and sanitation, reminded us all that the lack of clean water was certainly not a problem faced by the Maldives or Tuvalu alone.
“There are 884 million people in the world without access to safe water,” she said. “That’s the equivalent of the populations of the U.S., Vietnam, Germany, the U.K., Kuwait, Russia, Thailand, France, Italy and Qatar combined. “If all those countries had no water, would we do something? Or just stand by and watch?”
In a lively debate that concluded the day, Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age) was specific in his prediction about the planet’s future when it comes to clean water: “Long before we run out of water, we’ll go to war over it.
“Nature loves cockroaches and algae as much as it does people, and it’s possible only they will survive.”
Laamu, Maldives — The recent four-day, ocean-focused conference—dubbed WaterWoMen by its sponsors, Six Senses Resorts and +H2O—was a first-of-a-kind blend of water sport activities and intellectual athleticism.
Photo: Cat Vinton/Six Senses
In attendance were not just some of the world’s top water athletes (surfers, windsurfers, free divers, kite boarders) but also some of the planet’s more thoughtful thinkers on ocean issues.
On the athlete side were surfers Layne Beachley and Buzzy Kerbox, windsurfers Levi Silver and Keith Teboul, kite surfers Mark Shinn and Alex Caizergues, and extreme wake boarder Duncan Zuur.
The slightly less active contingent included biologist and oceanographer Dr. Callum Roberts; aquatic filmmaker and third-generation ocean lover Fabien Cousteau; director of the IUCN’s Global Marine Program, Carl Gustaf Lundin; Bollywood producer/director Shekhar Kapur; executive producer of the film The End of the Line, Chris Gorell Barnes; and Water Charity cofounders, Dr. Jacqueline Chan and Averill Strasser.
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The conference was also a coming out party for the resort, located on this remote Maldivian atoll just 100 miles north of the equator. The Maldives is perhaps the perfect place for such a meeting since warming sea temperatures have put its coral reefs at risk, thus endangering both its local population and the tourism industry that is its economic base. The event was prudently also a fundraiser for a trio of ocean nonprofits:
The Blue Marine Foundation (www.bluemarinefoundation.com), a recent initiative created by Barnes pushing for ten percent of the world’s ocean to be placed into marine reserves by 2020 (today less than one percent is protected);
Plant A Fish (www.plantafish.org), Fabien Cousteau’s hands-on marine education and restoration effort to “re-plant” aquatic plants and animals in environmentally stressed areas by engaging local communities around the globe through schools, businesses and government agencies;
and Water Charity (www.watercharity.org), which is focused on providing safe drinking water, effective sanitation and health education to those most in need via the most cost-effective and efficient means.
One of the key subjects discussed whenever marine folk gather is how to better protect the ocean at the edges of our coastlines. The statistics are simple and seemingly ridiculous: More than 12 percent of the Earth’s land is protected, whether as park, reserve, preserve or sanctuary. Of the ocean, which covers nearly 72 percent of the planet, far less than 1 percent is formally protected.
“Lundin liked the example of Malaysians, who, after catching a boat poaching in its waters, sink it within 24 hours.”
The Maldives is proudly home to the new, 1,200-kilometer-square Baa Atoll World Biosphere Reserve. And at one of the gathering’s frank talks about Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Callum Roberts, whose Unnatural History of the Sea is perhaps the best book out there about how man has so badly treated the ocean over the past 500 years, launched the discussion and was most direct: “So-called paper MPAs won’t work,” he said, referring to all the talking and thinking about protecting parts of the ocean that goes on without actually doing anything. “Establishing them, then enforcing the boundaries is key.”
“And only local protection works,” he continued. “Bringing in environmental groups or government agencies from outside won’t work. Local people have to protect their own waters.”
Calling MPAs “barometers” of the ocean, he said he was thankful for the newly announced set aside of the Baa Atoll—one of 26 big atolls that make up the Maldives, which include more than 800 individual islands or smaller atolls—because the Indian Ocean that surrounds the island state has been badly impacted by development stress, overfishing, pollution and, particularly, the impacts of climate change.
Chris Gorrell Barnes, whose Blue Marine Foundation—created as a follow up to the success of the End of the Line—was among several instrumental in getting the Baa Atoll approved as an official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, excalimed, “What we need now is not more science, but money. The biggest challenge is how to fund marine reserves, especially in bad economic times,” said Barnes.
Working with the IUCN, an MPA five times the size of the one in the Maldives has been set up in the Chagos Islands. “But in order to get that accomplished,” said Barnes, “we had to raise outside money to help the U.K. government, which is a prosperous First World nation. Imagine how difficult it is for countries in the developing world to find money to protect the ocean.”
Roberts chimed in that the money needed to protect even 30 percent of the ocean was not that much, in the big picture. “That would cost just over $14 billion,” he said, “or about the amount spent on beauty care products each year.”
Carl Gustaf Lundin, who oversees marine and polar programs for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is responsible for helping create MPAs around the globe, suggested that $14 billion was paltry compared to the $70 billion spent by countries around the world to subsidize fishermen. “The big question for MPAs, including here in the Maldives, is how do you subsidize people not to fish?”
He dove off Laamu earlier in the morning and had seen just five big fish in a stretcher where “I should have seen 50.”
“We have to do better at teaching people that a live manta ray, which helps bring millions of tourist dollars to the Maldives, is a far better deal than killing and selling its gills to China for a few hundred dollars.
“But the time to act is now,” he continued,” since we’ve only got 10 percent of the fish left.”
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“We have helped many areas in India gain protection, but enforcement then becomes a low priority. The reality is that you have to hang a few people high from time to time, as example, to help with enforcement,” he said. He agreed with Roberts that enforcement was key to making MPAs work.
The IUCN keeps a list of scofflaw vessels around the globe, including the names of ships and their captains, but Lundin liked the example of Malaysians, who, after catching a boat poaching in its waters, sink it within 24 hours.
“‘Warm and fuzzy’ doesn’t always work,” he said. “For MPAs to work, enforcement must be swift and effective.”
If there is a ground zero for observing the impacts of a changing global climate the Maldives are definitely a front-runner.
Photo by Jon Bowermaster
It is a place many have heard of but few could easily pick out on a map. Comprised of twelve hundred islands and atolls, most pancake flat, the highest reaches no more than five feet above sea level … making the Maldives the lowest country on earth. Only two hundred of the islands are inhabited, by roughly 320,000 people. It is an always hot, exceedingly beautiful, Muslim country stretching about 600 miles from north to south in the heart of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka.
I have been visiting the islands since 2005, when I first went to assess the damages wreaked by the massive tsunami that rolled from Indonesia to Somalia. The Maldives were largely spared; its coral reefs absorbed the brunt of the wave. In the years since, as rising sea levels and warming sea surface temperatures have gained more and more headlines, so has this tiny island nation.
Today erosion is a big problem on many of the islands and most of its coral is badly bleached.
In the past few days an invested crowd of thinkers and doers, including the Maldives’ President Mohammed Nasheed and several members of his cabinet, gathered on the small island of Kunfunadhoo, for the third annual S.L.O.W.L.I.F.E Symposium.
Daryl Hannah and Richard Branson, photo Six Senses
Organized by the owners of the resort company Six Senses, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani, the barefoot conference brought together environmentalists from the United Kingdom including Jonathan Porritt, Tim Smits and Jeremy Leggett, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Mark Lynas (author of “Six Degrees” and the new “God Species”), renewable energy and island nation leaders from as far away as Reunion and Bali, ocean mariners including Fabien Cousteau and some incredibly dedicated headline-makers (Richard Branson and the actors Edward Norton and Daryl Hannah).
The subject of three days of talks was, What can be done fast to slow climate change, before it’s too late.
Topics ranged from how small island nations can become energy independent, how to engage local communities in ambitious carbon reduction plans and the challenge of adapting transportation in a low-carbon economy.
It’s clear there are no easy answers. Soon after arriving by float plane President Nasheed delivered a harsh message. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to kill us,” he said. “Here in the Maldives our goal of becoming carbon neutral is not to scare the world, but simply to make a step in the right direction.”
Sonu Shivdasani, SLOWLIFE Symposium, photo Six Senses
While Nasheed leads an effort to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country on the planet, by 2020, there are some good things to brag about here on the Laccadive Sea. Last year the country banned all shark fishing and any tuna in the Maldives are caught only by pole. Recently the Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere.
While the Maldives, with few natural resources but a growing population and energy demands, is on the forefront of nations attempting to take themselves off the grid it’s clear the problems are not a lack of knowledge and information. But the Maldivian government officials reiterated what stands in their way is not lack of knowledge but of money. It’s one thing to have great ideas and access to information; paying for progress is something else, especially in a country with a fledgling democracy and a history of high debt and bad credit.
But it is trying. By 2020 the Maldives hopes to generate 60 percent of its electricity from solar, without raising the cost of power to its consumers. It has introduced a new import regime by the Transport Ministry to ensure that in the future electric cars will be a third of the price of conventional gasoline cars. And it has pledged to spend two percent of its national income on renewable energy deployment in the country. If that figure were matched worldwide, we would be collectively be spending $1.25 trillion a year rather than the $260 billion we spend today on renewable energy sources.
Worrying to all island nations of course is that CO2 in the world’s atmosphere is not declining but growing, as development and growth continue to mount globally. The goal of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million — what scientists regard as the safe limit for humans — may fast becoming an unreachable goal, since it has already risen to above 392 ppm.
One industry that prospers in the Maldives of course is tourism. Nearly 1 million visitors a year, including increasing numbers from China and India, fly into the capital city of Male each year and jump out to various island resorts by float plane or small boat. Taxes on resort development — and potentially new tariffs on visitors to support renewable energy projects — are the lifeblood of the Maldivian economy.