CLIMATE-CHANGE VULNERABILITIES OF THE MALDIVES:
IMPLICATIONS FOR INDIA
3rd April 2020
This article addresses some of the more prominent environmental challenges faced by the Maldives, which exemplifies those faced by low-lying island-states due to rising sea-levels as a consequence of climate-change, irrespective of whether such change is attributed to anthropogenic factors or geophysical ones. It touches upon the impact that this has on India’s own maritime security. The succeeding paragraphs seek to provide inputs of value to maritime-planners, policy-makers, policy-shapers and lay-readers alike.
The Republic of Maldives, with a land area of about 298 sq km, is the smallest country in Asia. It is an archipelago comprising some 1,200 tiny islands that are grouped into a total of 26 atolls. Of these islands, a mere 200 are inhabited and 90 of these have been developed as tourist resorts. The remaining islands are either uninhabited or are used principally for agricultural purposes. The scattered geography of these islands bestows upon the Maldives an enormous Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of some 923,322 square kilometres, which is more than three thousand times its land-area. With an average elevation of 1.5 metres (4ft 11in), Maldives is the lowest-lying country on the planet. Its highest elevation is just 2.3 metres (7ft 7in) above sea level, which is the world’s lowest naturally-occurring ‘highest-point’!
The Maldivian economy was, until the 1970s, based on fishing, shipping, and, the cultivation of coconuts. In the past half-century, the economy has switched to a very heavy dependence upon tourism and fishing, while maintaining very low levels of indigenous agricultural production. Its dazzling sun-drenched beaches and pristine waters that literally lap at one’s doorstep make Maldives a tropical paradise for tourists from across the world. However, the high dependence on the import of merchandise-goods and services for domestic consumption generates significant geo-economic vulnerabilities.
With the sea dominating the quotidian affairs of this archipelagic state, the issue of climate change is a major concern. The contribution of the Maldives to greenhouse gases is amongst the lowest on the planet andaccounts for a negligible 0.0003 per cent of the world’s total emissions. Despite this, the low-lying scattered land mass makes the nation particularly vulnerable to the perils of climate change. Indeed, climate-driven sea-level rise poses a practically existential threat to the Maldives, given that by the year 2100 sea-levels are projected to rise to a level that will lead to the submergence of the entire island nation. Despite its vigorous advocacy of the need to adopt sustainable developmental policies and smart climate-resilient strategies, the Maldivian State has not, thus far, been adequately successful in bringing about the degree of global or even regional change that is required if this existential threat is to be staved off. There are several articulations of empathy and support, but not enough change in terms of regional or global geopolitics. This makes the country exceptionally susceptible to its natural vulnerabilities and to being manipulated by external powers. Obviously, this is detrimental for regional maritime stability and security. Though this is clearly a matter of great significance to the Maldives, there are also several implications of this for India, whose mainland is located just 330 nm to the Northeast (in fact, India’s Minicoy Island in the Lakshadweep group is just 75 nautical miles north of the northernmost Maldivian island of Thuraakunu).
At present, Maldivians view climate-driven environmental change as just one of the reasons amongst several others that influence migration-related decisions. The 2018 edition of the United Nations International Organisation for Migration (IOM), referring to migration in the Maldivesstates that Maldivian migrants mainly consist of students (primarily moving to India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia and the United Kingdom), followed by employment-seekers (mostly in Australia, India and the United Kingdom) and asylum seekers/refugees (mostly registered in the United Kingdom). Since 2000, Sri Lanka has surpassed India and Australia as a major destination for Maldivian emigration (UNDP, 2015). By 2015, 48 per cent of Maldivians abroad were registered in Sri Lanka. The recent domestic political turmoil had significantly contributed to the very small number of Maldivian refugees and asylum seekers abroad. In 2016, 57 Maldivian refugees and 39 asylum seekers were registered, principally in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States.
The population of the country in 2019 was 534,256 including 70,000 foreign workers and 33,000 illegal immigrants from Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. As sea levels rise the number of climate-change migrants from Maldives is likely to increase and, as things currently stand, its neighbouring countries, which are most likely to receive these migrants, will be underprepared for the wave of refugees.
While it is yet to be established as to whether climate change is or will indeed be the main driver for migration amongst Maldivian islanders, it is definitely one of the more significant factors and could well lead to the forced movement of islanders. The Maldivians — especially the poorer ones — would naturally be more likely to move to countries in the vicinity, such as India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, etc. Therefore, the ramifications of such movements from Maldives to India, in particular, deserve to be studied by the strategic community.
Environmental change is triggering events that India needs to be prepared for. In 2015, climate change was the latest entry on the list of environmental security issues, and its potential to cause conflict among nations was recognised. Given India’s population explosion, the burden on water resources within the country would increase tremendously, very probably leading to water-sharing disputes. This is just one of the many other concerns that India should consider while chalking out a policy for a likely flood of migrants. A sea level rise of just one metre would reportedly put close to 145 millionislanders (largely from nations such as the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu) at risk and trigger forced migration. Of this extrapolated figure, about 41 per cent are expected to relocate to South Asia, and 32 per cent are likely to move to East Asia. Any inflow of migrants would jeopardise the already limited resources and expose the 600 million coastal population to the risk of hunger by2080, depending on temperature rise and population growth.
China in the Maldives
Two factors that are predominant in attracting regional as well as extra-regional players to establish their presence in these Small Island Developing States (SIDS), are: the latter’s strategic location, and, the abundance of marine resources within the Exclusive Economic Zones of these island-states. With China taking its global trade and infrastructure plan forward, the Maldives, which long been a popular tourist destination, has of late, started to grow in importance as a strategic stop for powers in the region. In particular, China and India are vying to encompass the Maldives within their respective sphere of influence. Each seeks to attain its stated and unstated geo-economic goals and objectives through intensified engagement with SIDS within the IOR. For the most part, these island nations have underdeveloped economies and are quite susceptible to being wooed by the promise of financial gain that is held out by the dominant players. This is seldom without its hidden costs. Today, the Maldives has racked up a total of USD 1.3 billionas debt owed to the Chinese, which forms more than a quarter of the island-nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Maldives currently owes a debt to China that would account for 70% of the external aid it receives. Servicing this debt requires an annual payment of US$ 92 millionto China, which constitutes roughly 10 per cent of the entire Maldivian budget. Chinese loans have led the Maldives into an economic crisis, which has been likened by strategic analysts to the situation of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the Chinese-developed port of Hambantota.
As in the case of Sri Lanka, such intensive economic involvement of China in a territory that is proximate to India — Maldives is less than 600 km from India — naturally generates security-concerns in New Delhi that loom large in its own strategic planning.
China’s ostensible concern over the threat posed by climate change to these SIDS in general and the Maldives in particular, is not without worrying security-implications for India. New Delhi apprehends that China is engaging in what Americans call “the long game”. For instance, using the pretext of ameliorating climate-change threats, China could initiate large-scale infrastructure developments and land-reclamation in the Maldives. These could, in the slightly more distant future, be used by China to further a major geoeconomic goal of Beijing, namely, securing its commodity-sources as well as its export-markets in Africa and West Asia, through a geostrategy of establishing and legitimising its presence in the IOR. This would almost certainly be detrimental to India’s own geostrategies that New Delhi would have formulated to pursue Indian geoeconomic interests in the region. A central component of every such geostrategy requires that India reinvigorate its ties with the Maldives and other IOR island-states.
Maldivian Policies for Mitigating the Adverse Impacts of Climate Change
In 2009, the Maldivian government, under the presidency of Mr Mohamed Nasheed, dramatically held a cabinet-meeting underwater, to draw the attention of world leaders to the plight of many low-lying island nations in the face of rising sea-levels driven by climate change. The Nasheed government actively considered the extreme step of relocation of the population. Indeed, the vulnerability of SIDS to climate-change-driven economic and environmental hazards, makes them likely sources for climate-driven migration. A 2018 World Bank reporthighlights how the climate migrants are projected to increase by a factor of six between 2020 and 2050, and within South Asia alone, internal climate migrants could number over 40 million, constituting around 1.8 per cent of the region’s total population. Protectionist fears are already being fanned and there is a growing movement that stridently opposes any government policy that might encourage ‘climate refugees’from island-states being accepted.
In 2013, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom succeeded President Nasheed and the Maldivian Government abandoned his predecessor’s ‘relocation policy’. Instead, it formulated a new ‘land-reclamation’ policy aimed at raising the islands to well above the anticipated rise in sea levels. Indeed, several marine scientists in the Maldives feel that the process of reclaiming islands is perhaps the only real solution to the climate-change-driven existential threat facing the country. According to Shiham Adam, Director, Maldives Marine Research Centre, “all you have to do is bring the dredgers, suck and pump it on the low-lying land in shallow waters…it takes four weeks to build the island and a couple more to put boulders around to stabilise it…to survive, we just need money.” The Maldives has been on a construction/reclamation spree for quite some time now. The ‘City of Hope’ in Hulhumalé, an island right next to the capital city of Malé, was built by pumping sand from surrounding atolls, depositing it on shallow reefs, then fortifying it with walls that stand 3-metres above sea level. Foreign investment was considered to be an essential prerequisite for the success of this policy. Foreign investors were invited to invest at least US$ 1 billion each, and demonstrate that 70% of their project-site would consist of land reclaimed from the sea. China’s interest in such projects caused alarm bells to ring in New Delhi, for reasons already outlined above.
However, a major environmental concern arising from such reclamation activities is the harm caused to surrounding corals due to pumping of sand onto the reefs. The coral reefs which are already facing extinction from ocean warming, are further endangered by this indiscriminate dumping of sand upon them. This, in turn, leads to bleaching and the destruction of the corals. In 2016, more than 60 per centof the corals at Hulhumalé experienced bleaching due to the effect of the El Niño weather phenomenon. Likewise, as a consequence of the severe 1998 El Niño, reefs in the Maldives, as also in Seychelles and Chagos Islands, were amongst those most impacted by bleaching. Studies also show that coral recovery is most likely to occur in the absence of direct human impact. Therefore, the process of reclamation of islands, in the face of the growing perils of climate change is quite untenable from the environmental perspective. This is particularly applicable in the Maldives even in the immediate-term, since that country’s economy is largely driven by tourism. The loss of the archipelago’s coral reef habitat would also have a severely detrimental impact upon coastal fisheries.
The Maldives may not yet have been submerged, but sea-levels have already risen, and the Maldives is experiencing other consequential effects such as coastal erosion, salinization, and major changes in monsoon pattern, rainfall, and, hurricane-winds even though the archipelago does not lie in the traditional ‘cyclone zone’. Some proportion of the Maldivian population has begun to migrate to safer and economically more lucrative destinations such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Malaysia. However, the challenge of this seemingly inevitable migration of islanders must be borne by the neighbouring nation states, particularly South Asian ones. India, as the dominant power in South Asia, must demonstrate enlightened leadership in its ongoing efforts to integrate the region under the prime-ministerial vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). While the Maldivian Government, on its part, has taken some adaptive steps, including the construction of sea walls, land reclamation, beach vegetation, raising island elevation, etc., it is far from certain whether any or all of these will suffice to stave off not just climate-change impacts, but geopolitical ones as well.
*Ritika V Kapoor is a Research Associate at the National Maritime Foundation and can be contacted on email@example.com
An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef, island, or series of islets, surrounding a body of water which is referred to as a lagoon. For more details see https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/atoll/(accessed 10 October 2019)
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Ibid, p. 31
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