By Shoko Noda
Squeezed in a subway in Tokyo one morning in 1992, I wondered how many fellow commuters had ever seen the magnificent underwater life. Only the previous day I had my first underwater diving experience witnessing incredible sea life – small and big fishes, swinging sea grass, and other life forms. The scene from the sea was in auto-loop in my head as I closed my eyes in an insanely crowded train that morning. I felt humble to be reminded that human beings occupied only 30 percent of the whole planet. The rest is covered with water, where a cosmos of its own exists.
As studies and work kept me busy in later years, I was deprived of diving opportunities. Since I joined the UN in 1998 I found myself repeatedly assigned in landlocked countries and capitals. I have seen raging mountainous rivers in Tajikistan, snow-covered Mongolian steppes, sky-penetrating Himalayan ranges, and barren Afghan-Pakistani border, but also have started to dream of blue oceans, white sand beaches, and all-year round tropical summer weather. And then in October 2014 I landed in the Maldives as the UN Resident Coordinator.
The beauty of the Maldives was irresistible. The incredible ocean ecosystem surrounding the Maldives awoke my long-hibernating diving bug. As my instructor gave a thumbs-down sign, I slowly sank down in the deep blue water—for the first time in more 20 years. Tropical fish under water look like a classic spring scene in Japan: pastel shade cherry blossoms whirling in the air. Mantas, turtles, sharks, or colorful powder blue surgeonfish and anemone fish all gracefully swum as if we, divers, did not exist. The 40 minutes diving took me back to the other universe that I once knew, and the humbling feeling I had in the subway in Tokyo came rushing back.
While the underwater life in the Maldives is stunning, I worry about its future. I was saddened to witness with my own eyes how badly the corals were bleached earlier this year. The sea temperatures have risen because of the El Niño. I recently returned to my favorite reef spot, where I had one of the best snorkeling experiences. I felt that the number of fish has gone down visibly. Once vibrant underwater life looked rather dull. Waste that have either ended up in the ocean, or that have been deliberately dumped have disrupted the ecosystem; plastic bags, ropes, and pieces of Styrofoam can be seen everywhere. I hear horror stories like boats that transport waste from resort hotels dumping everything in the ocean before it reaches the actual collection point.
The marine ecosystem, critical to everyday life in the island setting, is under grave risk. Coral bleaching affects the habitat for fish. It then impacts food supply and income of people. Bleached and damaged reefs can also lead to losing the tourism value. Reduced tourist activities can threaten livelihoods and the economy of the country.
We have to act now to reverse this vicious trend; we have to make the protection of marine life central to our development plan.
The positive side is that I have met many Maldivians who are passionate and committed about protecting environment and the marine ecosystem. In March, I joined a Maldivian NGO, “Save the Beach”, to conduct a “beach waste audit”. We collected every single item of waste in a specific area of Villimale` beach marked for this purpose, separated and weighed them by category, and recorded the results. The audits were carried out on a regular basis while public awareness raising campaigns was organized to monitor its results. The statistics shows that the volume of waste has gone down by 20% annually for the past few years – it is a tangible improvement. At the national level, efforts have also been accelerated to establish a more systematic waste management system throughout the country.
In April, during the first Sea Turtle Festival in Laamu, supported by atoll and island councils, Six Senses resort and the United Nations, I learned that sea turtles help in sustaining beach vegetation by transporting essential nutrients from the oceans to beaches and the coastal dunes. While beach erosion is a severe problem in small islands across the Maldives, clearly there are natural actors such as the turtles that can help prevent it. Turtles have always been an attractive target for their meat, eggs and shells. Even if it is banned now to capture them, and the government introduced significant fines to prevent this, there is still need for more awareness to protect the turtles. And I am happy to report that young Maldivians are taking a lead in doing so, including through social media.
The ocean waters that surround these islands are the very things that shape the life of Maldivians. As I read in the book first published by then Ministry of External Relations back in 1949 to present the Maldives to the outside world: “It`s a country which is more sea than land. There, all men are rovers of the sea; all women, daughters of the waves”. The slightest change in ocean temperature can affect the livelihoods here. A threat to a single marine animal such as the turtle can trigger a chain reaction. Sustainably managing this vital resource is therefore essential for Maldivians. This is particularly important in order to counter-act the adverse effects of climate change – one of the biggest challenges facing the country, and the world.
I am committed to working with you all, alongside the committed and passionate Maldivians who are already spearheading efforts to protect this beautiful and fragile ecosystem.
Editor's Note: Shoko Noda is the UN Resident Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative and UNFPA Representative in the Maldives.