Relocation! Relocation! Relocation!
At some point in the nearish future, much of the Maldive Islands will slip beneath the sea, large chunks of a nation swallowed up by the rising waters of global warming. Alarmed and increasingly desperate, the country's young president has an audacious plan: To buy a new homeland for his people. It's epic. It's borderline crazy. Can it possibly work?
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 Male, 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. It occurs to me, in that dark hour when no dog howls, that it might be a similar relief to be done with wildlife as well. Just get it over with. 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 Male, 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. The feeling is scary and new—both personal and world significant, Yeats's "The Second Coming" coming true.
I'm here in the Maldives 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. You know the story. Science says: This thing's coming, deal with it. And the president of the Maldives—the first democratically elected president—Mohamed Nasheed, is attempting to deal. On the eve of his inauguration last November, Nasheed announced his plan to begin investing millions each year in a sovereign-wealth fund that would go toward the purchase of a new homeland—an insurance policy in the event that rising seas force a mass evacuation of these low-lying isles.
Remote from anywhere (the closest neighbor is India, 300 miles to the northeast), this archipelago of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean was nonetheless once at the center of world commerce—a lifesaving oasis in the liquid desert. Where the original inhabitants came from remains a mystery, but by around 300 b.c., when mariners from the East and West first met here, the shrewd middlemen of the Maldives were already provisioning the spice trade with fresh water and dried fish, amassing profit enough to become bankers and financiers. Buddhists for more than a millennium, the Maldivians were subjects of a Muslim sultanate for the next 800 years. For most of the latter half of the twentieth century, the state was a de facto dictatorship, but in November 2008, the Maldives emerged from a decades-long struggle to become the world's newest democracy. It now confronts the possibility—some scientists say certainty—of becoming the world's first modern sovereign nation to be forced to evacuate due to a man-made environmental catastrophe.
The long-term outlook is bleak indeed: At a major U.N. conference on the emissions crisis in March, scientists warned that the Arctic ice is melting faster than previous measurements indicated, and that sea-level increases would be more severe and occur sooner than had been predicted by the 2007 report of the International Panel on Climate Change. That 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 as 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 TomKat and Brangelina variety. In this, the Maldives is caught in a classic catch-22. The country desperately depends upon the carbon-powered prosperity that is heating up the atmosphere and raising sea levels. So do we all. But we high-and-dry continentals can postpone thinking the unthinkable while our politicians tinker with the sputtering economic engine. Nasheed believes the Maldivians can't just wait and see how the repair turns out. Seen through their frontline lens, the world is on the brink of a tremendous reshuffling, a reorg beyond comprehension and prediction.
No wonder, then, that Nasheed can seem schizophrenic when faced with global economic psychosis, in which the economy and environment, actually two facets of one entity—like Jekyll and Hyde—pretend not to recognize each other. The president announced in March that the Maldives would 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. Meanwhile, with the all-important U.N. climate-change conference coming up this month in Copenhagen, Nasheed hopes to make as big a splash as possible. He has directed his cabinet to learn to scuba dive, and on October 17 he convened the world's first underwater parliament. His mix of Barnum and Cassandra is pure "negative capability" in the Keatsian sense: the worst-case scenario abiding with the best.
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COMMENTARY: When I first read this article, I was struck with both fear and sadness, knowing that one of these days, the Maldives will be claimed by the Indian Ocean, and the lovely people who live there will have to be relocated in mass somewhere else.
A lot of American's probably don't know where the Maldives are located, so just for the record, they are about 300 miles south of India, their closest neighbor.
Rising ocean levels due to melting arctic ice and glacier's are very slowly raising ocean levels at a rate unseen in generations. By 2050, if not sooner, the world's ocean's will rise about a meter, and this will be just enough to inundate the Maldives, parts of Bangladesh, other Pacific islands and many low coastal areas in the U.S., Asia and other nations.
My biggest regret is that many people, especially in the United States, are not taking global warming that seriously. We can all sit there on our fat butts, bicker and argue amongst ourselves, and continue to believe that global warming does not exist, or we can do something. If you need further evidence just ask a Maldavi. The clock is ticking for this small nation. They are dealing with global warming right now.
Courtesy of an article appearing in the December 2009 issue of GQ Magazine