On the Ground in Maldives - Reflections from the Front Lines of Global Warming

Writer and Human Rights Officer for the UN Secretariat Mehrunnisa Yusuf reflects on a recent visit to the island nation of Maldives, and how their approach to adaptation to climate change should send a message to the rest of the world.

I have recently returned from the Maldives. Unfortunately I do not have a tan to show it off, having gone there for work. What is interesting about being there at this time is to witness the continued commitment to the climate change agenda. As a country constituted of islands, the issue of climate change is a real and pressing concern. Fortunately for the Maldivians their government, both the previous and newly elected democratic one, is doing a fair share to address these challenges.

Tropical paradise lost? Maldives on the front lines of climate change.

The consequences of climate change in this region are ones that have implications not only for the nation itself but also for other countries who in time will be faced with the dilemma of absorbing populations displaced by the impact of climate change. The Maldives is already internally confronted with the challenge of housing its population as soil erosion and increasing tides are encroaching on already scarce land.

Migration caused by climate change is bound to be a highly politicized affair and something that will, in the coming years, be subject to intense debate. It is likely to be as contentious as the negotiations relating to carbon emissions and the lack of consensus on how to proceed further, especially since it involves thorny issues such as where the responsibility for protection lies and which protection regimes would be applicable to such displaced persons. Also, displacement is not merely a physical occurrence. There are issues of loss of identity, culture, and adaptation to new cultures and livelihoods which will figure prominently.

The problem with climate change is that its effects are not immediately visible. This accounts for why action on this area has been so long in coming. Of course the UNFCCC wisely warns in its principles that the process of developing solutions should not be held in the balance because of the lack of 'scientific certainty’, practice is a reminder of how far removed reality is from commonly agreed principles.

Notwithstanding, although on a global level greater action is wanting, I was amazed to see that the Maldivian President Nasheed has not only made a pledge to make the Maldives carbon neutral in a decade but is also working to raise local awareness of climate change. On March 28 2009 the Maldives, in support of Earth Hour, switched off non-essential lights and electrical appliances. To complement this initiative the government also asked its citizens to refrain from using transport, encouraging them to go on foot between 6PM and midnight.

As a developing country that is challenged by its own geographical environment and resource constraints it is remarkable that they have taken such a robust stance on this issue. To be sure, the government’s decision to go carbon neutral in a decade is an ambitious target, but that is to lose sight of the important precedent that is being set. It is time for the international community to take stock and follow the steps and listen to the voices of small states.

We live in a global world sharing the same earth, and yet for the most part we behave as if our spaces of occupation are limited only to our country borders. President Nasheed puts this as, “The world is in danger of going into cardiac arrest, yet we behave as if we've caught a common cold”.

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