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Why Maldives needs to declare a state of climate emergency - IMMEDIATELY (PT. I)

As Maldives gears up for Climate Strike on Sep 20, the UN Climate Summit on Sep 21 and COP25 in Dec, the time is ripe for the nation's leaders to acknowledge the urgent climate crisis and rise to action. Part I of a II part mini series on the Climate Crisis.

Rae Munavvar
19 September 2019, MVT 09:47
Why Maldives needs to declare a state of climate emergency - IMMEDIATELY (PT. I). IMAGE: JAUNA NAFIZ / THE EDITION
Rae Munavvar
19 September 2019, MVT 09:47

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as of right now, 11 percent of the world’s population is vulnerable to droughts, floods, heat waves, extreme weather events and sea-level rise caused by climate change. As the state of the Earth worsens, in as little as 2-3 decades, 100 percent of Maldivians stand to lose their livelihoods, heritage and homelands… presumably in that order.

Most people are aware that Maldives, presenting little in the way of world-wide carbon emissions and one of the least contributors to global warming and climate change on this shared planet - is fated to be first in line for the repercussions, along with a further 800 million vulnerable people.

As an apocalyptic future approaches with alarming speed, rather than give rise to action, many seem to have settled for apathetic outlook. Though no longer ignorant, urgent discourse and mitigation have taken a backseat to idle post sharing.

Perhaps this hurdle can be blamed on human psychology, for historically, discussions about a possible end of days have never gone down well. However, donning ‘eco slogan’ tees and hashtag fuelled rants, though immensely satisfying, is sufficient no longer. Beach cleanups, exporting plastic waste for recycling or stocking government offices with recyclable gear though fantastic, are only a start. There is a larger message that needs to be addressed and delivered to the masses.

By confronting the difficult truth of climate change and accepting the inevitable call to arms, this low-lying country not only succeeds in owning its reality - Maldives is presented with an opportunity to set an example for the world, leading the fight. To quote Bristol councillor Carla Denyer, the woman responsible for bringing the emergency movement to England, "It is the first step to radical action."

Sure, ‘Green Ambassadors’ from Maldives have done a remarkable job of voicing out these concerns to the global community - but this is more about the average Amina and Ali coming to terms with the fact that the threat of climate change is an issue they will most likely have to deal with in their lifetime, and providing everyone the best chance at survival.

Coming together and presenting a united front may be the only leverage the nation has in demanding that larger, more powerful nations of the world accept their share of responsibility and join islanders on the battlegrounds.

Sands of Time

At the time of the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, which provided the scientific input into the Paris Agreement, the goal was to maintain global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.

In 2018, IPCC shifted course and began advocating for temperatures to be kept below 1.5 degrees celsius, describing the difference as “a significantly lower risk of drought, floods, heatwaves and poverty” for hundreds of millions of people.

The document states, “without increased and urgent mitigation ambition in the coming years leading to a sharp decline in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, global warming will surpass 1.5°C in the following decades, leading to irreversible loss of the most fragile ecosystems, and crisis after crisis for the most vulnerable people and societies.”

Terrifyingly, IPCC’s 1.5 Special Report further emphasizes that presently, humans have only a 67 percent chance of reducing global temperatures below the 2 degree Celsius limit.

Data recorded in 2016’s Second National Communication of Maldives (NCM) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) also supports IPCC’s claims, noting “future climate projections indicate that the extreme flooding events are likely to become more frequent in the future with changing climate”.

NCM then goes on to declare, “despite the fact challenges, Maldives is determined to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change”. But how ready are we really?

Consider psychologist Abraham Maslow’s five levels of human needs, a theory most of us are familiar with to better comprehend the severity of today’s climate crisis, and the impact it has on the people of Maldives at the most basic levels.

1. Food

In the event of any extreme climate activity, let alone sea level rise, the country’s ability to both produce and store food will, without a doubt, be compromised. Similarly, as nearly 90 percent of the food consumed in the country is imported, any impact on food production in the source countries will also directly affect food security.

Food reserves in the capital city, as with the remaining 200 inhabited islands, are located in close proximity to the sea. As such, preparations for future storage needs are not in effect.

On the subject of food production, environmentalists allege that agricultural centres like that of Thoddoo Island, are not pressured to farm sustainably and that simple measures such as utilizing rainwater for watering are not in place. Further, their unchecked profuse use of pesticides doesn’t just make the food dangerous to consume - it also contaminates groundwater and may leak into surrounding waters.

Fish and seafood are essential to the islanders’ diet. As such, changes in sea temperature and ocean acidity will affect fisheries. The issue of marine debris is also a concern, along with rising levels of untreated or improperly disposed sewage, which is the case for most islands. Though the expanding local tourism industry has encouraged cleanups, the wastewater situation has not benefited at all.

That’s not all. Microplastics have been discovered in the bodies of various species of fish and to account for dissolved toxins is nearly impossible. For a country that relishes concentrated fish products like ‘Rihaahukuru’ - this is far more than a footnote.

Aside from proper waste management and storage, adaptive measures for food could also include incentivizing other means of food production, for instance vertical farms, small-scale hydroponic farms and so forth. Harmful agricultural practices should be discouraged by taxes and bans.

Targeted awareness programs about the immediate impact of marine pollution could be conducted. A system where fishermen and boat crews could profit from fishing out waste from the ocean could be implemented.

2. Water

Certainly, water deserves to be ranked far higher than food as scientists estimate humans can go 3 weeks without food but less than 100 hours without water, that too in “average temperatures” and “without exposure to sunlight”, rendering the fact irrelevant to Maldives. However, the issue of water here is slightly murkier.

Most Maldivians have already noticed drastic changes to the usually predictable monsoon seasons. Sources from the MET Observatory confirmed that climate change has already begun to affect precipitation patterns in the Maldives.

According to NCM, overall decreasing trends in annual rainfall were observed over the 3 regions of Hanimaadhoo, Malé and Gan. The total number of rainfall days per year is also decreasing. Adding to the issue is that groundwater is hardly an option anymore; the freshwater lens used in our well water have become salinized and polluted in a majority of islands.

“Traditional rainfall patterns have changed over the last decade. If you’ve monitored precipitation or even asked elder locals to compare Hulhangu Moosun these days with the traditional Nakai Calendar, the difference is clear, “ revealed Sharafulla Thoha Hussain, technician at Maldives Climate Observatory based in Hanimaadhoo Island, Haa Alif Atoll.

Devoid of natural freshwater sources, the archipelago as a whole currently relies on desalination, a process that is heavily fossil fuel dependent. Even as resources deplete and prices rise, several alternatives are already on the market. Technology that allows for absorption of water from the atmosphere exists and there are forms of water extraction using clean energy that must be explored.

Furthermore, rather than abandoning traditional and more sustainable methods like the collection of rainwater, islands can be designed to capture heavy downpour. Instead of wasting water during showers and storms as happens now, this natural resource can and should be utilised.

3. Shelter

One of the most important factors to account for in this regard are rising global temperatures, after all, 17 of the 18 warmest years in the history of the planet took place after 2000. In the Maldives, NCM reveals temperatures are increasing in the capital city by approximately 0.3 °C per decade, although in this case the urbanization of the area bears most of the responsibility; however, the fact that the ‘replication of Male’ is a growing trend, makes it quite concerning.

Maldives, as vacation-goers often describe it, is a land of endless summers. But what was a blessing stands soon to become a curse - our asphalt and concrete homes will no longer be tolerable a few degrees later.

Cooling our homes uses up fossil fuels we will soon not be able to acquire. “One of the best championed answers is to examine ancestral resources and marry them with elements of modern tech to curate solutions with a smaller carbon footprint”, offered a Maldivian property developer.

Presently, 44% of all Maldivians and their homes, stand within 100m of the sea. Even for those settled further inland, nearly 80% of the nation is below 1.5 meters of mean sea level. In the event of a natural disaster people have nowhere to seek refuge.

To begin with, the building of high-standing homes, is a decent adaptive measure for low-lying islands as it would alleviate immediate threats of flooding. Presently, in most islands including the capital area, the majority of homes are based at ground level.

Finland’s answer was the introduction of floating villages six years ago and has had remarkable success. Equipped with energy-saving systems and technologies, prefabricated homes are designed to withstand extreme winds and wave conditions. Even if it means abandoning island ways of life, testing the far more resilient floating homes is something that must be considered.

Prior to that though, stands the protection of nature's own barricades - the mangroves. wetlands and coral reefs which together not only mitigate the effect of wave swells, tsunamis and storms, but also absorb 10 times more carbon from the atmosphere than tropical forests.

For example, another idea may be to test the Modular Artificial Reef Structure (MARS) introduced at Summer Island Resort, which was initially developed by Austrailian designers as a wave break, but in this case one that allows for water and sand movement thereby possibly preventing erosion, while also welcoming coral growth. There are many other promising projects to look into as well.

4. Energy

Maldives has become extremely, unforgivably dependant on non renewable - as a single glance around the typical household or office building demonstrates.

As fuel prices climb, these lifestyles that have only just become accustomed to modern conveniences are set to become incredibly restricted, and fast. Heaters, coolers, inter-atoll travel, intra-atoll travel, cooking, learning - without energy normalcy in the island nation will need to be redefined, drastically. Soon even this article, may be far out of reach.

Renewable energy is the future; and in the long run, it will prove to be several times cheaper. In addition to halting the subsidization of fossil fuels and incentivizing clean energy, the government could commence initiatives tailored around projects for which the country has already served as a testing ground such as Swimsol’s Floating Solar Panels, Professor Tsumoru Shintake’s The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University Wave Energy Converter units (WEC-units), and more.

Frankly, few countries are better poised to enter a rapid fossil fuel phaseout or has more reason to actively seek out and begin testing, implementing and subsidizing clean energy alternatives, than Maldives.

5. Security

The issue of security is best described by Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid at the United Nations Security Council meeting on the impacts of climate-related disasters on international peace and security, this January.

He asked, “While we are still busy trying to decide which forum of the United Nations must address which aspect of climate change, in our countries across the world; lakes are drying up depriving fresh water to tens of millions of people. Unseasonal droughts are leaving millions of people homeless. Hunger and displacement are leading to conflicts. And entire nations are sinking under water. What is a bigger security risk than this?”

Nevertheless the country is yet to see such statements translate into action at home. The same disruptive unsustainable development continues, antagonizing and destroying the fragile ecosystems.

Intensifying climate events pose serious threats to the Maldives, as demonstrated by the devastating loss caused by the 2004 Tsunami, where development was set back decades.

Although Tsunami and Weather warning protocols are in place, if citizens fail to understand the gravity of the current climate situation, appropriate response will not follow. Indeed mitigation measures concerning security begins with informing people of the ‘undiluted’ truth.

6. Relationships

There’s no telling, really, how our human connection will suffer in the coming years. First there is the loss of culture and heritage. Next, few countries have a population as dispersed as the Maldives; and when damage extends to travel and communication, relationships will face immense stress.

Internet, which itself carries a large carbon footprint, has nevertheless improved the lives of Maldivians in ways that are hard to describe. Having to ration power will mean that digital lives will be one of the very first compromises Maldivians may need to sacrifice in favour of the essentials; security, energy, water, and food.

Can any of us recall what life before the world-wide-web was really like? Is being disconnected in that fashion something we even want to remember?

For ‘digital generations’ at least, this might be one of the most compelling arguments as to why Maldives needs to spend money researching and implementing clean energy solutions.

Devastation In Progress

For most of the innovations mentioned in each category, wide-scale applications are yet to be seen. What the country’s leaders are waiting for, is just as much a mystery.

Marine experts state that rise in ocean temperatures to levels causing serious and widespread coral bleaching was first recorded in 1988, followed by 1998, 2010, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 - it doesn’t take a genius to understand the incidence is increasing and fast. The latter three may not have been mass bleaching events, but effects are significant.

The IPCC report expresses high confidence that if global temperatures can be stabilized at a maximum of 1.5 degrees celsius, 70 - 90 percent of coral reefs will deteriorate. If these temperatures exceed the 2 degrees celcius mark the report calculates with ‘Very High Confidence’ that 99 percent of reefs will die. Of course if that happens, the human race will follow shortly after.

Surveys conducted over the last two decades lead to clear deductions that at least 80 percent of coral reefs in the Maldives, are already severely damaged. The tourism industry works overtime to create a facade of perfect isles - despite existing legislation that prohibits excavation of sand, destruction of marine habitats and so on. The constant ‘beach nourishment’ that occurs in resorts, unjustifiable development of harbours, newly reclaimed resorts and airports, removal of ‘Heylhifah’ (vegetation buffer zone) by guesthouses, all serve to exacerbate an environment already slipping into deep decline.

Environment Impact Assessments are necessitated and therefore are carried out to ensure minimal harm occurs. However, for in instance, most consultants agree requirements like silt curtains and sediments screens are hardly ever used, and without enforcement by EPA and authorities, developers do get away with ‘oceanic’ murder. One of the most important steps that needs to be taken is to ensure that EIA’s are seen as more than a rubber stamp of approval for business owners to skirt around.

In terms of waste management, islands and atolls have moved to ‘take the matter into their own hands’, announcing everything from ‘banning single-use plastics’ to ‘recycling and composting’. Unfortunately the truth of the matter is, plastic is still being used momentarily and discarded, recycling and composting are only conducted in very small proportions. Across the archipelago, waste is still being burned and toxic emissions freely released into the atmosphere, including at the infamous Thilafushi garbage island where even a decade ago, up to 330 tons of rubbish was collected daily.

The technology to incinerate waste using clean energy with zero emissions does exist, and has been utilized by many including Indian inventor Shanavas Sainulabdeen. So does means of turning waste into energy, which is especially well carried out in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Incineration Plant which turns trash to ash in 30 minutes. However, foreign sources have confirmed that the government has, on occasion, deemed investing in such innovations as too costly.

Arguably, the depletion of the Maldives’ natural resources, and the permanent depreciation of its marketable value is a price the country cannot afford to pay.

Continue to Part II...

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