With its white sand beaches, clear waters and vibrant coral reefs, palm trees and warm weather, the Republic of Maldives attract an average 0f 700,000 tourists each year. That’s pretty impressive, considering that annual rate nearly doubles the population of the island nation.
But what Maldivians and tourists alike love about the archipelago country may just be the very thing that threatens its existence.
Comprised of 1,190 coral islands, no part of the Indian Ocean archipelago rises more than six feet above sea level, leaving the nation at great risk of rising seas and storm surges.
A 2007 study by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted a rise in sea levels of 50 cm over the next century, rendering the majority of the Maldives islets completely uninhabitable by the year 2100.
Though Maldivians contribute relatively very little to global climate change, they find themselves the most vulnerable to its affects. They are a nation directly affected by the actions of others. This realization has led to a ‘lead by example’ mentality, placing the Maldives as one of the most environmentally forward thinking nations in the world.
Leading by example
In March 2009, Maldives’ President Mohamed Nasheed made a bold announcement regarding his nation’s role in the fight against climate change. On behalf of his nation, he vowed to make his country the world’s first carbon neutral nation in just 10 years, by 2019.
The ambitious goal will be achieved by a complete switch to renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power. The nation, which was the first to sign the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997, will also implement actions developed in an eco-plan by international climate energy experts.
Soon after this announcement, the Republic of Maldives became the seventh country to join the Climate Neutral Network (CN Net), a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) initiative launched in February 2008 to promote the global transition to low-carbon economies. Costa Rica, Iceland, Monaco, New Zealand, Niue and Norway have all signed on to the program, leading the way in lowering carbon emissions.
“When the most climate change vulnerable nations display leadership in addressing the cause of the problem which they had very little to contribute to, there is no excuse for others not to act,” said Achim Steiner, CN Net UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director.
“The global community of nations can and must express its commitment to protecting the planet and powering green growth by sealing an ambitious climate deal at this year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.”
Sustaining tourism demand
Accounting for more than 28 percent of the country’s GDP and more than 60 percent of foreign exchange receipts, tourism represents the largest industry in the Maldives. Its isolation off Southern Asia in the Indian Ocean means tourists arrive by carbon-intensive means: air and sea.
The Maldives is internationally recognized as a model for sustainable, environmentally-friendly tourism; though a little assistance in maintaining this reputation is always welcome. Last month, President Nasheed announced a proposed environmental tax on tourists in order to help mitigate the carbon emissions associated with travel to the nation and fund renewable energy projects.
Dealing with waste
When you’re a nation averaging one meter above sea level, with limited land mass and an economy which thrives on pampering tourists and pristine landscapes, disposal of waste could certainly pose a headache. Currently, only the capital of Malé has a solid waste infrastructure in place.
Disposal of solid and hazardous waste near vegetation and shorelines is a critical issue for islands. Started as a reclamation project in 1992, the island of Thilafushi is known as the trash island to Maldivians. With more than 10,000 tourists a week adding to the waste of the population, a staggering 330 tons of waste is brought by ship to the island each day! The island remains hidden from view, except to the workers who sift through, incinerate and landfill the refuse.
The government recently established the Waste Management Corporation (WMC) with the mandate of collecting and disposing of all waste generated in the Maldives in an environmentally friendly manner.
On September 1, 2009, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, announced it will work with the government of Maldives to modernize the country’s solid waste management system. The government hopes this new partnership, along with increased environmental revenue from the tourist tax and increased waste disposal education for visitors, will help the island nation minimize waste and disposal issues.
By Lori Brown