Threat from the sea

THE idyllic Maldive islands face a threat from an old enemy and friend -- the sea. Despite repeated calls for technological and financial support to keep them afloat, at various fora like the UN's Special Debate on Environment and Development in 1987 or the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the overall response has been poor. This was the unequivocal message conveyed by the Maldives president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in a discussion organised by the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

Gayoom asserted in his address that more effective environmental strategies need to be formulated for small island states as these countries face the threat of environmental degradation wrought by the industrialised world, but have neither the resources nor the technology to tackle global issues such as climate change. Gayoom minced no words when he said, "It is the responsibility of the developed countries to provide us financial support and facilitate the transfer of appropriate technology to formulate effective solutions to our problems and pave the way for our attainment of sustainable development."

Rising danger
Gayoom had brought the possibility of the rise of the sea level rise in Maldives to the notice of the world as long as 6 years ago. Quoting the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Gayoom said that the sea around the island nation will rise by as much as 20 cm by 2030 and around 65 cm by the end of the next century.

Such a rise could spell disaster for the low lying islands of Maldives, which are only about one or two metres above mean sea level. The impending rise is closely linked to the greenhouse effect, which has been triggered off by the burning of fossil fuels and which, in turn, could raise sea to dangerous levels.

The Maldives' case for greater support from industrialised nations has been strengthened by its membership in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). It was on AOSIS's intervention through the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Climate Change that Article 4 -- which stipulates that the industrialised countries should assist developing countries in meeting the costs for adaptation to spin-offs of climate change -- was incorporated in the convention. However, much to the dismay of island states such as Maldives, the Global Environmental Facility, the designated funding body of the Convention, does not mention this provision in its implementation procedure.

Such a provision assumes critical dimensions for small island states because of their unique ecology. Current scientific findings reveal that a rise in mean temperature could lead to coral reef degradation because of coral bleaching. The destruction of coral reefs would also make the islands more vulnerable since the reefs act as protective barriers.

The need to safeguard the beautiful coral reefs that encircle the 1,190 islands of Maldives was also apparent at the discussion. Gayoom maintained that the Maldives government has acted on this front, which includes measures like a reduction on import duties on alternative building materials such as cement and river sand so that coral mining can be reduced or prevented, and the ban on the use of coral in government building and government-financed construction projects.

The tourism industry is inextricably linked to the Maldives' economy. Gayoom was favourably disposed to the idea of an "environment tax" on tourists who come to enjoy the "existence value" of these unique islands. He said that the tourism industry has several adverse environmental spin-offs such as changes in consumption pattern and waste dumping. "We will have to study the (tax) proposal to see if it is feasible, or whether it will affect the competitiveness of our tourism", he asserted.