With fish darting amongst them in a blue lagoon, the Maldivian president and his cabinet staged an elaborate stunt to publicize climate change. Billed as the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, President Mohamed Nasheed and 11 ministers, decked in scuba gear, held a meeting thirteen feet underwater.
While officials said the event itself was light-hearted, the idea is to focus on the plight of the Maldives, where rising sea levels threaten to make the nation uninhabitable by the end of the century. Reported by the BBC’s Olivia Lang, the event reminded the world that Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, has become an important global voice for climate change since he won in polls last October.
“We have to get the message across through a course of action which resonates with ordinary people,” the president said, as the boat neared our destination. “What we are trying to tell the people is that we hope there is a better deal at Copenhagen.”
The presidential speedboat took 20 minutes to arrive in the turquoise lagoon off Girifushi, in North Male atoll. The cabinet – minus two members, who begged off citing health concerns – then zipped themselves into diving suits and donned goggles and tanks of compressed air before jumping in the water.
Major Ahmed Ghiyaz, the co-ordinator from the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), said all measures had been taken to protect the president, which included checking the coral for dangerous creatures.
“I am 99.9% sure there will be no harmful creatures,” he told the BBC before the dive. “I’m sure there won’t be any sharks. The nastiest thing would be a moray eel, but we have checked the reef”.
A horseshoe-shaped table was set up around a dark green coral reef with blue tips and home to an array of sea creatures in one of the world’s most famed diving spots.
The president and his team took their seats at 10 a.m. at the bottom of the lagoon, sitting at desks with name tags while colorful parrot fish and black and white damsel fish darted around them. Using hand signals to gesture that they were OK, ministers then passed round an “SOS” to be signed – an agreement calling for carbon emission cuts.
“We must unite in a global effort to halt further temperature rises,” the message reads.
President of the Maldives
“Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth.”
Meanwhile, a handful of journalists kitted out in snorkel gear and swimming around on the surface tried to get a glimpse of the action below.
Emerging out of the water, a dripping President Nasheed removed his mask to answer questions from reporters and photographers crowded around on the shore.
“We are trying to send a message to the world about what is happening and what would happen to the Maldives if climate change isn’t checked,” he said, bobbing around in the water with his team of ministers.
“If the Maldives is not saved, today we do not feel there is much chance for the rest of the world.”
After the dive, the president told the BBC he had seen a stingray swim nearby during the meeting. “There was a sergeant fish that was particularly interested in what was going on,” he said during a typically Maldivian lunch of fish curry and coconut juice.
“I’ve never been worried about reef sharks and I’ve been diving for a long time,” the 42-year-old added. He says other Maldivians had heard about the event and wanted to get involved in some way. On the island of Kuda Huvadhoo, some islanders reportedly created a sealed box and put their TV in it so they could watch the footage of the meeting underwater.
“They told me, ‘if the president is under water, then they want to be too’,” Nasheed said.
But he was keen to push the need for action.
The 1,192-island chain is at severe threat from rising sea levels, with 80 percent of its islands less than a metre above sea level. “What do we hope to achieve? We hope not to die. I hope I can live in the Maldives and raise my grandchildren here,” says Nasheed.
I went for a swim this morning in deep water in the middle of the South Pacific. Twelve-thousand-feet deep. The sea was lumpy, with six-foot swells running towards Hawaii, a couple thousand miles to the northeast. Using just a mask and snorkel, no fins, peering into the depths I tried to imagine what was below. It gets dark fast just below the surface despite the bright sunlight, which leaves everything to the imagination. That’s the wonder of the ocean; even its most expert fans have very little idea what lies two miles below. When it’s suggested that everything’s been “explored” or “discovered,” I put on a mask and try and see into the deep ocean. There’s a lot down there we have no idea about and I wonder if we ever will.
Photo, Pete McBride
Swimming in a wild ocean without fins is eye opening. A little scary. It made me wonder how long I could last out here on my own and have to admit I got out of the water not feeling superbly confident. An hour, maybe? Bobbing about, treading water, maybe taking a few strokes? It’s not how I would choose to go … but whenever I’m out in it I have to admit to the same thought running through my head. What would it be like to never climb out of the ocean, to truly be lost at sea?
I also thought about just how warm the middle of the ocean feels, empirically speaking. But it’s true, the ocean is warming and there are statistics to back that up. My colleague Alex Nelson sent this note this morning: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the temperature of the world’s oceans reached a new high in July. The ocean’s surface temperature peaked at 63.1 degrees Fahrenheit, besting the old record — set just the month before.
The implications are enormous. Ocean surface temperatures affect the size and power of hurricanes. This year’s hurricane forecast is optimistic, with Colorado State University predicting 11 named storms, only five of them hurricanes. NOAA expects 9 to 14 storms, providing marginal relief from last season’s anomalous 16 storms.
The greatest impact of this worldwide warming is on the polar ice caps. Last September, for the first time in recorded history the North Pole became an island. Ever-rising water temperatures melted the ice that has always connected the landmass to northern Canada and Russia. The agency also said that, on average, Arctic sea ice covered 3.4 million square miles in July, 12.7 percent below the 1979-2000 average and the third lowest on record – after 2006 and 2007. While this development was an unexpected boon for shipping companies eager to cut down on travel time, it represented a grave manifestation of the effects of global warming. Sea levels have been rising 50% faster than the United Nations predicted in 2007 and are expected to gain at least a full 39 inches by 2100.
The UN is holding a summit in December in Copenhagen to draft a treaty addressing climate change issues. The 180 countries expected to attend will set limits for gas emissions and deforestation in an effort to combat the effects of global warming.
Saffah Faroog sips a mango juice and continues explaining the history of the Maldives oldest environmental group, Bluepeace, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. He is its communications director, a volunteer like the rest of its staff, and has a great story to share – the organization has a great web presence and a long history of doing the right thing in the Maldives by keeping environmental stories in the news. There’s no lack of subject matter with beach erosion, species loss, the impact of climate change and rising sea levels and the still lingering after effects of the 2004-tsunami, still daily stories.
“Perhaps the most impressive thing for us here in the Maldives,” he says, “is that just two years ago I would never had a conversation in public with you like this, not about these subjects. We had to be very careful about everything we wrote, anything we said in public or private, because almost anything could be construed as a potential criticism of the government, thus possibly resulting in recrimination.
“You have to remember that our new president was a journalist turned civil rights activist who was jailed and tortured and once held in solitary confinement for 18 months for criticizing the government. And that wasn’t so long ago.”
Saffah is from one of the southern atolls but has lived in Male most of his life. A writer and editor, he’s traveled outside of the Maldives a few times, has even seen snow, in Bhutan. He volunteered full-time for six months last year to help get the new president elected. His take on the new administration is “so far, so good,” but he admits that as well as a handful of serious environmental issues – which President Mohammed Nasheed has already taken on directly, especially in the court of world opinion – there are other serious issues that need immediate attention.
“Here where we sit, the capital island of Male is one of the most crowded places on earth. One hundred thousand people live on an island just one square mile. In the last few years we have serious problems of drugs and gangs. One third of everyone under twenty-five uses heroin; we have stabbings and murders on the street are frequent. The drugs manage to sneak through the airport or the seaport. It’s becoming a dangerous place to live and the president has to do something about that.” While hopeful, he says he has “mixed opinions about the new administration,” especially concerns that sizable projects are being begun without sufficient public consultation.
My experience in island nations is that it’s hard to talk with locals about long-term environmental issues like climate change and rising seas since their temperament is to look only as far as tomorrow or next week, not decades into the future, a kind of island version of manana. Faroog agrees that it can be tricky here too. “The impacts of climate change seem very far away to them, which I understand. But we have to keep having those conversations.
“In Male we are just one meter above the sea; they are already building a new island that is two meters above sea level, which should be sufficient in a doomsday scenario. I don’t see that as a solution for Male’s problems. But when those on the outer islands hear the new president talk about creating a fund from tourist revenues to use to buy land to move us one day from the islands … they are indifferent.
“Of course rising seas are our major concern. But so are warming seas, which impact our coral, lead to more erosion, harm the fish life and impact daily life. Everything here is simple … and everything is connected.”
THE PROBLEM WITH SAND
Intertwined with concerns about rising sea levels and the potential impact on this, the lowest-lying country in the world, are worries about beach erosion. One afternoon this past week I sat on a seemingly hot, calm day and watched as small tidal waves crashed onto the sand beach. Each wave seemed to climb higher up the beach, each washing a new swath of sand off the beach from beneath the mangroves and into the sea.
On some Maldivian islands it’s estimated that four out of eight homes have already been lost to beach erosion. Careful environmental planning has not been the watchword for development here; one concern is that as the population grows and prospers there is more demand for building of homes, work places and new ports. Development requires cement, which needs sand. While efforts have been made in recent years to limit how much of sand for construction can be taken locally and how much needs to be imported, it’s a fine line in the sand here.
The call to Friday prayers on Eydhafushi are spread island-wide by plastic loudspeakers affixed to poles and buildings scattered around the Maldivian sand-spit, home to three thousand. When it comes I’m floating a quarter mile offshore and it wakes me from a heat (90 degrees F) and calm-sea reverie; a reminder that here, near where the Arabian Sea melds into the Indian Ocean, we are in an all-Muslim nation. (I was reminded last night too, with a chuckle, when the man in matching linen who brought me a bottle of chilled rose and bragged about it’s ‘fruity’ taste admitted his lips had never touched alcohol.)
Earlier in the morning, before the day’s heat arrived, I’d walked a nearby jungled island, crows and rails darting among the pandanas and palms, camouflaged lizards and introduced rabbits scooting across the sandy paths. The foliage was dense and green, the island far more substantial than most in the Maldives, which are typically little more than sand and sea rubble piled up on coral. Given that even a substantial island here rises just six feet above sea level, as much as anywhere in the world the Maldives are threatened by rising sea levels.
A fisherman I met early this morning shared what I expect will be a drumbeat of anecdotal reports I hear during the next couple weeks of small islands that used to be habitable at least for day fishermen have already disappeared under rising seas.
It’s been a big week and a big past few months politically and environmentally in the Maldives, thanks largely to last November’s election of Mohammed Nasheed as president. A human rights activist who had been imprisoned and tortured by the man he ousted, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nasheed – the first democratically elected president in the nation’s history – has quickly turned into a vocal leader, especially among island nations, on the environmental issues facing his 1,200 island country.
One of his first pronouncements upon election was that he was going to start setting aside money for and start looking at land to buy to move his people, to get them out of harm’s way if sea levels in fact rise as expected. He began diverting a portion of the country’s billion-dollar annual tourist revenue into a new homeland account, an insurance policy against climate change. “It’s an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome,” said Nasheed, also known as Anni.
Yesterday Nasheed was on an atoll near to where I float, assuring its five hundred people that he would at least help them find an island nearby where they could start growing crops. He also assured them he would grow its school to extend to 11th and 12th grades. Just last Sunday, in an op-ed piece written for The Observer, he announced that by 2020 the Maldives would be carbon neutral.
At 41, Nasheed is a rising star in Asia, where he has been compared to Nelson Mandela. Before taking office the new president asked Maldivians to move forward without rancor or retribution – an astonishing call, given that Nasheed had gone to jail 23 times, been tortured and spent 18 months in solitary confinement. The Gayoom “sultanate” was an iron-fisted regime that ran the police, army and courts, and which banned rival parties. Public flogging, banishment to island gulags and torture were routinely used to suppress dissent and the fledging pro-democracy movement. Gayoom was “elected” president six times in 30 years – but never faced an opponent. However, public pressure grew and last year he conceded that democracy was inevitable.
One good thing Gayoom helped implement was a booming, high-end resort economy; as a result the Maldives are the richest country in South Asia, with average incomes reaching $4,600 a year. Corrupt officials, unfortunately, skimmed much of that wealth, off; official figures show almost half of Maldivians earn less than $1 a day.
To make his environmental pledges come to reality, there will have to be sacrifices. To raise cash, his government will sell off state assets, reduce the cabinet and turn the presidential palace into the country’s first university.
“It’s desperate,” the president says. “We are a 100% Islamic country and democracy came from within. Do you want to lose that because we were denied the money to deal with the poverty created by the dictatorship?” Like so many young, out-of-the-good-old-boy leaders taking reins around the world, the Maldives has quickly and forcefully jumped on the bandwagon. It should be fun to watch.