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Climate Change»Rising ocean levels threaten Maldives

»Monday, January 4,2010


Ahead of the global climate talks in December 2009, nine photographers from the photo agency NOOR photographed climate stories from around the world. Their goal: to document some of the causes and consequences, from deforestation to changing sea levels, as well as the people whose lives and jobs are part of the carbon culture.

While the sources of greenhouse gases are often in the industrial world, consequences often are visible in non-industrial areas. The Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, which is struggling to hold back rising seas, is one such example. The capital Malé, seen here, is one of the world's most densely populated cities. Nearly 104,000 people are crammed onto an island about a square mile in size.

Malé sits on an island just three feet above sea level. The natural shape was added to by filling shallow waters with sand and rocks. That took the land closer to an outside coral reef, reducing the reef's ability to buffer the island from storms and rising seas.

To counter the tides and storms, a $60 million concrete barrier system, part of it seen here, now rings Malé.

"I chose Maldives because it's the country which is the closest to sea level," says photographer Francesco Zizola. "If it's true what the majority of scientists claim regarding global warming, then Maldives would be the first country to disappear underwater."

Residents often take advantage of low tide to collect rocks and other material to reinforce exposed areas near their homes or businesses.

Over the last century, sea levels globally have risen about eight inches, much of that from melting ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as thermal expansion of warmer waters. Eight inches might not sound like much, but for Maldives every inch counts.

Maldives plans to move toward renewable energy but still uses a diesel-powered plant to produce electricity for Malé.

The $60 million seawall was financed by Japan and runs nearly four miles around Malé. It's about 11 feet tall.

Rising sea levels are not the only worry here. Warming seas, and more acidic seas due to CO2 emissions, have the potential to impact fisheries and the coral reefs on which many fish rely. Fishing makes up 20 percent of Maldives' gross domestic product and provides an estimated 22,000 jobs.

While gaps in climate science exist, leading some to question the degree of mankind’s impact as well as whether anything should be done, most governments as well as the science academies of the U.S. and other industrial nations agree that mankind is a significant factor and that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced.

Sand is mined at Villingili Island and some of the other 1,200 that comprise Maldives. The practice is often done illegally, most of it to supply the cement industry, making the islands even more vulnerable to rising seas, high tides and storms.

Besides climate concerns, Maldives struggles with trash from locals and tourists. Most of its garbage is sent to Thilafushi Island, also known as "Rubbish Island." Originally a vast lagoon, it became an island in 1992 when garbage was used to fill it in.

Workers incinerate or bury most of the waste. Crushed cans, metals and cardboard are shipped to India, but any hazardous waste is not removed from regular garbage.

Malé's residents are hardly a symbol of green living. Besides burning diesel to make electricity and shipping trash to Thilafushi, the Maldives capital pumps sewage untreated into the sea.

Maldives has an international airport on Hulhulé Island. The runway is just 6 feet above sea level. At high tide, that can narrow to just 20 inches.

Residents of Malé and the rest of Maldives are part of an island culture that dates back at least 2,000 years. "We do not want to leave the Maldives," President Mohamed Nasheed has said, "but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades."

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