The Maldives, a fledgling democracy at the vanguard of climate change

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The Maldives, a fledgling democracy at the vanguard of climate change

Post  Sirop14 on Fri Sep 27, 2013 4:33 am

The Maldives, a fledgling democracy at the vanguard of climate change
An IPCC report on future sea-level rise looms, but climate issues have been absent from the political campaigns on the paradise atolls

On Friday 27 September, the low-lying island nation of the Maldives will be given the date of its extinction; notice of a death by drowning. It will come in the form of a prediction for future sea-level rise in a landmark report on global warming by the world's climate scientists. On current trends, anything more than three generations will feel like a reprieve.

On the packed streets of Male', the mini-Manhattan that serves as the Maldives' island capital, there is a political clamour. But, perhaps surprisingly, the cause is not worry about the existential threat posed by the rising seas but over accusations of corruption and vote-buying in the presidential election.

Mohamed Nasheed, the nation's first freely elected leader and darling of the west for his warnings about climate change, was expected to be restored to the presidency in this month's elections. However, the vote that was supposed to restore Nasheed to the presidency is currently suspended following a complaint from the candidate who came third in the first round of polling.

The issue of climate change – even given the credentials of Nasheed, the first round poll leader – was as invisible during the country's election campaign as the carbon dioxide that drives it.

On the resort islands that underpin the Maldives' economy, it is hard to imagine the paradise atolls are on the frontline of climate change. Under the aquamarine water, iridescent parrotfish and myriad others prune the pink and green coral reef while squid pulse with purple phosphorescence over gliding hawksbill turtles. But a few kicks of the flippers further on and the scorching aftermath of the 1998 and 2010 bleaching catastrophes are clear, with broken coral rubble strewn on the sea floor like broken bones and masonry on a bomb site.

This sliver of an island nation, home to nearly 400,000 people, is literally built on tall coral columns perched on ancient underwater mountains. Friday's landmark report on global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which is currently being finalised by a meeting of the world's top climate scientists along with political observers in Stockholm – will set out the extreme precariousness of this position.

For coral reefs, the 800 climate scientists behind the report will be forced to add a new colour – purple – to the top of their range of risk levels to signify how much the dangers have worsened since the last IPCC assessment in 2007.

A significantly higher estimate for future sea-level rise is expected, up to 97cm by 2100, and this poses the most obvious threat to an archipelago where most land is no taller than an 11-year-old child. But rising sea temperatures will also increase coral bleaching and crumbling – where the reef gradually dies because the coloured algae that live within and help to feed the corals are expelled as the water warms.

"Our islands are not rocks in the ocean, they are dynamic, natural systems and the changes [caused by climate change] are making life difficult or even unbearable for species like humans," says Mohamed Aslam, until 2012 the environment minister in Nasheed's government. "If we were birds we would simply fly to Sri Lanka, but we build houses and settle."

The new IPCC report, which will be signed off by the world's governments, will also describe the increasingly extreme and erratic weather being driven as the planet heats up. At the Maldives National Meteorological Centre, deputy director Ali Shareef says: "There is no doubt climate change is having an effect here in the Maldives. Nowadays, we find severe weather events two to three times a year but a decade ago they might only happen once every year or two."

Bigger ocean swells are driving waves right over the islands, he says, contaminating with salt the thin lenses of fresh groundwater beneath, while thunderstorms are causing flash-flooding and knocking out power systems. The waves also drive erosion of the islands, accelerating a natural process that can shift an island over 30 metres in a decade.


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