Climate change may sink us this century: Maldives

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Unless the world starts taking climate change seriously and cuts greenhouse emissions, the Maldives could become uninhabitable this century, the president of the Indian Ocean archipelago says.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has been telling the world for 20 years that his cluster of 1,200 islands dotted across 500 miles

of sea off southern India is imperiled by climate change.

With a United Nations climate panel forecasting world sea levels likely to rise by up to 59 cm (2 ft) by 2100 due to global warming, the clock is ticking.

“Time is running out for us,” Gayoom told Reuters in an interview. “Global warming and sea-level rise pose a clear and present danger for the Maldives and its people.”

“Three-quarters of our 1,200 islands lie no higher than four feet above mean sea-level. The projected rise in sea-levels by the end of this century could mean that our islands may become uninhabitable at that time.”

He says the international community can help prevent his nation sinking into a watery grave if it shakes off inaction and self-interest and builds the political will to tackle climate change.

“The 1997-1998 El Nino led to the bleaching of our surface corals. The unprecedented tidal surges that were experienced simultaneously on nearly 80 islands earlier this year were a stark reminder that weather patterns were becoming both unpredictable and unsavory,” he said.


“All these effects compound our concern as our narrow-based economy is dependent on fisheries and tourism. Both sectors face a real danger of collapse if current trends continue during the coming decades.”

Tourism is the lynchpin of the Maldives’ $700 million economy.

The island chain is renowned for its luxury resorts -- accommodation in pavilions on stilts over turquoise lagoons can run to well over $1,000 a night. The playground for Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise is also famed for its white sand beaches and world-class snorkeling and scuba diving.

Only 195 of the Maldives’ islands are inhabited, but 93 of those are suffering from erosion. And the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami exposed just how vulnerable all the islands are.

While geography helped save the Maldives from the death and destruction that devastated countries such as neighboring Sri Lanka, authorities had to evacuate 13 islands completely.

“If climate change continues unchecked, local mitigation measures will not be sufficient to safeguard my people,” Gayoom said. “Our very survival depends on the discussions being held on the global stage.”

“The science of climate change has advanced in leaps and bounds. Yet, we have so far failed to agree on effective cuts in greenhouse gas emissions,” he added. “The problem, in my view, is a lack of commitment.”

Gayoom says it is unfair to expect the world’s industrialized nations, such as the United States, to shoulder the burden of climate change alone, saying developing countries Brazil, India and China are also big greenhouse gas emitters.

December’s climate change meeting in Bali will be crunch time.

“Time is running out to agree upon a post-Kyoto arrangement and Bali could well be our last chance to ensure that the end of the Kyoto Protocol period will not result in a loss of momentum,” Gayoom said.

“At Bali, the world must agree on more substantial emissions reductions,” he added. “It must also serve as an opportunity to bring aboard those currently outside the Kyoto process.”

Gayoom is organizing a climate change summit in the Maldives on November 13-14, and has a simple message.

“I call on all my fellow world leaders to take heed of scientific warnings, and show greater commitment in our search for a concrete solution to climate change.

“The 300,000 people of the Maldives are putting their faith in your judgment. Their survival is in your hands.”