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How are the Maldives faring under global warming?

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Lily Beach Spa and Resort, Maldives. Book Now!

Jacinta: So we’re reading Adventures in the Anthropocene, by science writer and intrepid traveller Gaia Vince, which we picked up at Adelaide Writers’ Week earlier this year. She was a speaker, probably from a remote location, but I didn’t hear her talk….

Canto: Yes, but we’re certainly interested in the topic – global warming, problems, possible solutions, and the female and male heroes trying to effect those solutions. We bought two of Vince’s books – Adventures in the Anthropocene, published in 2014, and Transcendence, in 2019. And at last we’ve gotten round to reading them, in order of publication. We’re about halfway through the first book, which is divided into sections of concern and interest. The first section, “Atmosphere”, deals with the cause of the problem, human changes to our atmosphere, increasing CO2, methane, chlorofluorocarbons and such. The next sections, “Mountains”, “Rivers”, “Farmlands” and “Oceans” treat of glacial melting, dammed, over-fished and polluted rivers, drought-affected and nutrient-depleted soils, and rising sea levels, among other things…

Jacinta: Which brings us to the Maldives, a group of numerous tiny-teeny low-lying tropical islands in the north Indian Ocean, between the Arabian Peninsula and India, regarded as ‘canaries in the coalmine’ for global warming. The smallest and most geographically dispersed nation in Asia, it’s apparently been a getaway place for the super-rich, but most of the local population are dirt poor, and heroin addiction is rife, or at least was ten years ago. Vince met with the island nation’s then President, Mohammed Nasheed, a climate activist who’d taken over from some more or less corrupt characters, and was soon to be ousted by same. My further reading tells me that he’s still active in Maldivian politics, in spite of its brutal nature – corruption in the country has drawn criticism from human rights organisations, and caused its withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations in 2016. It has since been reinstated… 

Canto: Yes, the Maldives is surely the oddest nation on earth. It has about half a million inhabitants (tiny for an Asian country – if that’s what it is), spread over a territory of 90,000 square kilometres, of which only 300 square kilometres is land! It features a vast mountain range, entirely under water, and overall it’s the world’s most low-lying nation. Apparently the tiny islands are separated by large distances, but navigation between them is near-impossible due to all the coral reefs surrounding them. The marine ecosystems there are among the richest and most diverse on the planet.

Jacinta: Politically it’s been very up and down. It’s a Moslem nation, and to be honest, there haven’t been too many Moslem nations with great democratic, open-society credentials. Wikipedia relates plenty of cloak-and-dagger stuff, with timely, or untimely, depending on perspective, intervention from India. 

Canto: It was part of the British Empire/Commonwealth for a period, after colonising efforts from the Dutch and the Portuguese. Their National Day relates to the extirpation of the Portuguese, who’d tried to impose Christianity on the islands. The Brits agreed to a protectorate system which allowed for Home Rule, apparently. 

Jacinta: In 1953 one Mohamed Amin Didi became the Maldivian President. He was a progressive, who promoted the education of women, and tried to deal with addiction issues on the islands. He was more or less beaten to death for his efforts. 

Canto: Yes, the history of the region is a sorry saga, but let’s focus more on the present. There are various predictions as to when the islands will disappear completely under rising seawater, and this will of course depend on the rate of warming, as well as mitigation processes on the islands themselves.

Jacinta: Yes, it seems that Maldivians are at the mercy of the rest of the world’s emitters. But here’s an interesting quote from Wikipedia: 

In 2020, a three-year study at the University of Plymouth which looked at the Maldives and the Marshall Islands, found that tides move sediment to create a higher elevation, a morphological response that the researchers suggested could help low lying islands adjust to sea level rise and keep the islands habitable. The research also reported that sea walls were compromising islands’ ability to adjust to rising sea levels and that island drowning is an inevitable outcome for islands with coastal structures like sea walls.

Canto: Hmm, I can visualise that idea of tides moving sediments to build up the land – more than receding tides might remove sediments – but I can’t imagine it making a big difference. But what would I know?

Jacinta: Yes, and as to sea walls, they’re of course an artificial solution – which isn’t necessarily all bad, but they’re generally seen as short-term solutions, designed or financed by the rich to keep their coastal properties intact. I believe the most recent IPCC report, every word of which seems to be scrutinised and questioned by various governments, refers to some proposed solutions as ‘maladaptations’ without being too specific. In any case, natural solutions such as mangroves don’t work everywhere…

Canto: And rising sea levels cause other problems, such as contamination of underground aquifers in low-lying islands and coastal areas. 

Jacinta: Representatives from these regions – the Maldives and the Marshall Islands for example – are arguing that, for the foreseeable, there’s no alternatives to sea walls, and they should be paid for largely by the world’s principal emitters, which sounds reasonable to me. 

Canto: There’s another issue – the concrete generally used to build these walls also contributes to global warming. So here’s an apparent solution, or at least a partial one. Cement, the essential binding ingredient of concrete, is made from clinker, ‘a residue produced by firing limestone and clay in a furnace heated to 1,450°C’,  a temperature achieved by burning fossil fuels. Cement-making causes about 7% of annual CO2 emissions. According to the PreventionWeb site, there’s a solution:

One of the biggest challenges facing the construction sector is reducing concrete’s carbon footprint while keeping the benefits of a cheap and durable building material. One way to achieve this is by replacing cement with recycled industrial waste, such as granulated slag from steelworks and pulverised ash from coal power plants (essentially, the residue that can be scraped out of the bottom of furnaces).

Our newly designed low-carbon concrete mixes use both of these recycled materials. In fact, it was possible to use up to 60% steel furnace waste in the mixes without the concrete losing its compressive strength, which is crucial for ensuring the structure holds up. The resulting mixes had a 40% smaller carbon footprint than traditional concrete.

Jacinta: Not bad. And I suppose engineering solutions, if that’s what this is, are important for mitigation while we tackle the actual emissions problem.

Canto: Well this is tackling the emissions problem too, kind of. Anyway lots of piecemeal solutions do add up. 

Jacinta: Hmmm. And apparently they’ve been building new islands in the Maldives and elsewhere. Not floating islands, that would rise with the tides, which some enterprising individuals have created, but massive things upon which to build new tourist resorts and high-rise buildings. Lots and lots of sand apparently. It’s already happening. Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!


Gaia Vince, Adventures in the Anthropocene, 2014

Gaia Vince, Transcendence, 2019


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Maldives’ man-made islands offer answer to sea-level rise


Written by stewart henderson

June 5, 2023 at 8:40 pm