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The last days of paradise

Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, wants to buy a new home to save his 300,000 people from rising sea levels. Where on earth could they go? Jon Henley explores the options.

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So what do you do if you are the newly elected president of a small, relatively impoverished country whose greatest claim to fame, besides arguably the finest beaches in the world, is the fact that it is slowly sinking into the sea? You lose no time reminding the world of that fact, obviously. And to underline the urgency of the problem, you reveal the startling news that you are seriously thinking about moving the whole nation somewhere else.

That, at least, is what Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, did recently. He aims to start setting aside a chunk of his country's sizeable tourist revenue to set up a land-purchase fund. "We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own, so we have to buy land elsewhere. It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome," he told the Guardian on the eve of his November 11 inauguration. "We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades."

It is an intriguing, if deeply depressing idea: the first nation on earth to be forced to abandon its homeland because of the impact of global warming and steadily rising sea levels. Nasheed is basically talking about relocating the Maldives' 300,000-strong population to nearby India, or Sri Lanka or, possibly, Australia. But even if you accept the necessity of such a grim scenario, is it actually feasible? Could an entire people simply move to a new country, set up home there and pick up their lives again as if nothing except the unfortunate disappearance of their old base had actually happened?

The current consensus seems to be that it is not.

"It would be very difficult for a state, as such, to move," says Dr Gareth Price, head of the Asia programme at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). "There can be ad-hoc migration, of course, even of quite large numbers. But there are big jurisdictional issues here, issues of sovereignty. That said, it is a real problem, and one we're going to have to get used to. Nasheed is saying to the rest of the world: ‘We really have to think about this. We want to stay together, we don't want to lose our culture, and this isn't our fault’."

No one doubts the Maldives' crisis is real. Made up of nearly 1,200 islands and atolls -- 200 of them inhabited -- in the Indian Ocean, it holds the record for the country with the lowest high point on earth: nowhere on the Maldives does the natural ground level exceed 2.3 metres. Most of its land mass, which totals roughly one-fifth of Greater London, is a great deal lower than that, averaging around 1.5 metres.

So, climate change will affect the Maldives more than most places. Sea levels in the area have risen by about 20 centimetres in the past century, and the United Nations estimates that they will rise a further 58 centimetres by 2100. The country and its capital, Malé, were inundated by unusually high tides in 1987, which caused millions of dollars worth of damage. The Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004, was even more devastating. The wave that struck the Maldives was barely a metre high, but it killed 82 people, displaced 12,000 more and inflicted US$375 million of damage (including US$100 million to the exclusive beachside resorts).

Tourists may be vital to the Maldives' economy, but they are all but ignorant of its problems. The country is known as one of the world's most upmarket destinations, its luxurious beachside bungalows proving particularly popular with honeymooning couples. Nearly 90 otherwise uninhabited islands have been turned into resorts that pull in more than 600,000 mostly European visitors each year. But while the average visitor apparently spends around US$300 a day, they will rarely come into contact with Maldivians. Transported to their atoll by speedboat or small plane, they don’t step off it except for a day cruise.

The tourism industry, though, accounts directly for maybe one-third of the Maldives' GDP and at least 60% of its foreign exchange. Import duties and tourism-related taxes generate more than 90% of the government's income; there is precious little other economic activity on the islands except for fishing. Few of those visitors are going to want to visit once their accommodation risks slipping, at any moment, beneath the waves.

The Maldives has been working for some time on one possible solution: constructing a new island, Hulu Malé, or New Malé. The government hopes to be able to transfer the populations of some of its lowest-lying atolls there -- and, eventually, the capital (currently one of the most densely populated towns in the world) as well.

"They've been dredging the waters around the existing island to raise it to above the 2.1-metre mark," says Saleemul Huq, head of the climate-change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Some of the smallest inhabited atolls, Huq says, "are thinking in terms of relocation", but only, at this stage, within the archipelago.

Longer term, though, he adds, "if the measures we are taking to counter global warming do not prove sufficient, then it may well be that people will have to be moved further afield." Such eventualities already are being discussed, Huq says, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) providing an initial forum to talk through the "adaptation" of the most vulnerable countries. The island of Tuvalu, for example, is in talks with Australia about much the same kind of idea.

"But it's plain," Huq adds, "that the relocation of entire populations is a source of major potential conflict." The Maldivian president mentioned India, Sri Lanka or Australia as possible hosts for his island people. In the case of the first two, at least, cultural differences for the islanders would be minimal (many islanders already work there, and wealthy Maldivians have been buying homes in Sri Lanka for years). Amid India's 1.13 billion people, 300,000 Maldivians would not be a lot. But quite apart from the human cost of uprooting them, the international legal system is simply not up to the job.

"There isn't really a big plot of land in either country which you could say is available," says Chatham House’s Price. "There's a possible parallel with the case of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal -- the US has volunteered to take 60,000 of them. But that is a group of people, not a nation. And it's hard to see what the Maldivians would do wherever they were to go: all they have is tourism and fishing. If they have money, I suppose somewhere in Africa might volunteer -- maybe a place like Zanzibar could work? But the real problems would be constitutional: a state cannot play host to another state. In the case of Sri Lanka at least, the whole cause of its civil war is precisely this kind of federal issue."

Some experts see further legal problems down the line. The Inventory of Conflict and Environment (ICE) -- based at American University in Washington, DC -- foresees potential for conflict increasing within and beyond the Maldives as sea levels around the country rise. "It is possible that the Maldives would seek to be compensated by polluting countries for the loss of their islands," it suggests in an advisory paper.

"However,” it adds, “it is unclear whether the Maldives would seek new sovereign territory elsewhere. Additionally, it is unclear whether the Maldives would seek that territory in neighboring countries or elsewhere, such as in countries that contributed to the climate change in the first place, like the United States or China. Will a country that is threatened or destroyed by global warming demand compensation for its loss? Would the Maldives try to claim Washington, DC -- which is roughly the same size as the Maldives' territory -- as compensation for the United States' role in contributing to global warming?"

Tourism has made the Maldivians by far the wealthiest people in south Asia, with a GDP per head of more than of US$3,000. But the wealth is relative and the riches are thinly spread: in Guraidhoo, Kaafu atoll, nearly four years after the tsunami, families still live in bare breeze-block huts, within eyesight of the luxurious Kandooma Island resort. "Longer term, the issue of these low-lying island nations could start to become very problematic indeed," says Huq.

www.guardian.co.uk
Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited, 2008

Homepage photo by Cha...

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

另外一种选择

马尔代夫可以考虑另外一种选择而不是购买他国土地:国土置换。马尔代夫要购买土地,就不可能在旅游上发展了,剩下的就是渔业了。我的建议是中国可以考虑用岛屿与马尔代夫进行土地置换,这样马尔代夫可以继续从事渔业,在具体的协议上,马尔代夫还可以享有中国对马尔代夫旅游再开发的部分股权,也可以考虑要不要永久置换。我想,在印度洋上有领土,中国一定会喜欢的,呵呵。

Another option

Maldives might leave the land purchase aside and take another option--land exchange with other countries, because what will be left is fishery alone if Maldives really buys land, which will make it impossible to develop tourism. I suggest that China might consider making a land-exchange with Maldives using its islets, then Maldives could continue its fishery growth. when coming down to the detailed agreement, Maldives can take a share in the tourism re-development that is carried out by China in Maldivian land, or Maldives can have a final say whether the exchange is a permanent one or not. I guess that having territory in the Indian Ocean will certainly be a thing that China enjoys. Hehe.

Translated by Ming Li

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

murad qureshi上午

我们需要承认我们有气候变化难民由于发生的变化在我们的环境上,并且马尔代夫是,只是一个极端例子。我们有日内瓦公约处理第二次世界大战的政治难民,所以何不做气候变化谈判!

Murad Qureshi (AM)

We need to acknowledge that we have climate change refugees as a result of the changes occuring in our phyiscal environment and the Maldives are but one extreme example. We had the Geneva conventions dealing with political refugees of the second world war, so why not something similiar through the Climate Change negotiations !

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

可行性??

我觉得马尔代夫本身是受害者,全球变暖应该全世界特别是发达国家负责,举国迁徙没什么问题,但是从哪找到一个安全的又没有主权的地方就比较麻烦,在别国领土上面置地的话以后肯定会出现摩擦,所以与其寻找其他领土不如采取措施保护和治理
by ivy

feasibility?

I think Maldives are the victim, and the whole world, especially the developed countries, should be responsible for global warming. It's easy to think of moving the whold country, but it's complicated to find a safe and avaiable place which is not belong to any countries. Inevitably,it will bring conflicts if they set up their home on other country's territory. So it better to take actions and protect the environment now than finding another place.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

存在的问题

从短期来看,马尔代夫一旦搬迁,那么一项重要收入即旅游收入将不再存在,国家财政如何解决,国家是否还能保持,还是被其他国家或民族同化。长期来说,温室效应、全球变暖的脚步不停止,在地球上躲来躲去有何意义!

the problem

In the short run,if Maldives moved to other place, it will lose its tourism revenue. Then How to solve the problem of the country's financial revenue? Will the country keep itself or will it be assimilated by other countries or cultures? In the long run, it doesn't make any sense to move here and there if the greenhouse effect and the global warming won't stop.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

不仅仅是马尔代夫

气候变暖威胁的不光是马尔代夫,很多大小岛国都有危险,这只是马尔代夫的领导者提出来而已,那么马尔代夫寻找其他领土,那么其他的岛国也去寻找新的领土么?寻找新的领土是不能觉得问题的,呼吁全世界重视温室效应,应对全球变暖才是关键

Maldives is not the only country facing the threat of climate change, lots of other islands are in danger as well. But only the president of Maldives raise the problem. Maldives is looking for a new land, then how about the other countries? Are they looking for new land, too? However it cannot solve the problem, it's more important to raise the awareness of the greenhouse impact and to fight with the climate change.