The Maldives, a sinking paradise

With its turquoise waters and palm-fringed beaches, the Maldives may look like the epitome of a “paradise” destination, but rising seas are forcing the islands and the tourism industry on which its future depends to find sustainable solutions

Estimates from the United Nations (UN) predict that sea levels will rise by 28cm-58cm by the end of the century (based on 1989-1998 levels) as a result of rising temperatures. Scientists believe the major reason is increasing levels of carbon emissions, largely from the burning of fossil fuels, which are causing the melting of ice sheets, glaciers and ice caps—and thermal expansion as the temperature of the sea itself rises. It warns that: “Larger sea level increases of up to one metre by 2100 cannot be ruled out if ice sheets continue to melt as the temperature rises.”

The effect is likely to be greater on island nations, which are “particularly vulnerable to climate change. Their limited size makes them more prone to natural hazards and external shocks, in particular to rises in sea level and threats to their freshwater resources”, the UN says.

One of the most vulnerable island nations is the Maldives. Consisting of around 1,190 coral islands in the Indian Ocean—approximately 200 are inhabited and 100 are tourist resorts—with an average height of just 1.5 metres, and no point higher than two metres, sea level rises and the increased frequency of storms have made them increasingly prone to beach erosion (with houses frequently disappearing into the sea), tidal flooding and even complete inundation. The situation is so serious that the government has explored the possibility of moving the entire population to a new homeland.

For a country dependent on the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors who come for its pristine beaches, turquoise waters and beautiful coral reefs (the Maldives Ministry of Tourism, Arts & Culture expects up to one million visitors in 2011), there are serious economic repercussions. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 4th Assessment Report of 2007, the impact of sea-level rise on tourism, the country’s main economic activity, and fishing, the second largest sector, could contribute to a 40% drop in the country’s GDP.
Maldives—on the climate change front line

“The Maldives is on the climate change front line,” the country’s president Mohamed Nasheed, also a passionate environmentalist, has said. “But what happens in the Maldives today happens to the rest of the world tomorrow. We need to help steer the world towards the carbon neutral path and the Maldives aims to set a global example by embracing low-carbon development.”

True to his word, the Maldives government is putting in a huge amount of effort in its fight against climate change and sea level rises. This is despite the fact that the island nation shows all the signs of an unsustainable society—land and freshwater are increasingly scarce, and it imports nearly everything except rubbish, which it exports.

First, President Nasheed has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020 by replacing all fossil fuels with renewable energy and there are plans to electrify all of the island’s vehicles and boats. Secondly, it is investing in expensive sea defence improvements, building sea walls and breakwaters on islands where the threat is greatest. In 2007 it also published a National Adaptation Plan of Action, listing its priorities in the face of sea level rises, in areas from tourism and fisheries to water resources and coral reef biodiversity.

The Climate Change Advisory Council, comprising of ministers, scientists and energy experts, is tasked with looking at how the Maldives can best mitigate, and adapt to, climate change. In terms of renewable energy, it has implemented a number of projects in the south of the country. Within 12-18 months, it will have its first carbon-neutral island, which will be one of its “pioneer islands”, to be powered by solar and wind energy.

The focus initially is on islands with local populations, which use significantly less electricity than resort islands, but the government is also in talks with hotel operators to see what they can do to reduce their impact.

Building a sustainable luxury tourism sector
The Maldives has built itself a reputation as a luxury destination by limiting development of each small coral island to one self-contained resort (approximately 100). Each must generate its own electricity, provide its own freshwater and deal with its own waste. It must also manage the impact of visitors’ activities, such as snorkelling and diving, and address the problem of beach erosion, which often requires pumping sand from the lagoon or building sea defences.

Apart from the cost of operating these resorts, their impact on the fragile Maldives environment is huge and getting bigger, with hotel groups opening up ever-more extravagant properties offering more spacious accommodation, bigger private swimming pools and more guest services. There are many signs, however, that the hospitality sector has acknowledged its role in addressing the serious environmental problems facing the Maldives and is taking the lead in making tourism more sustainable.

Six Senses Resorts & Spas’ luxury Soneva Fushi resort on Kunfunadhoo Island has been the recipient of many green awards, including The President of Maldives’ Green Resort Award and Conde Nast Traveller’s Barclays Wealth Sustainable Award. It plans to be the first carbon neutral resort on the Maldives by 2012. It has installed a 70kWh solar photovoltaic (PV) system, which it intends to expand, and a solar thermal system, which will meet between 50% and 60% of the resort’s needs. Generating the remaining 40% of the resort’s energy requirements is going to be a challenge, but with eco-technology improving at an impressive rate, Six Senses believes the goal is achievable. Other carbon-cutting measures at the resort include growing fruit and vegetables, and guests are asked to contribute a carbon tax, which is invested in “green” projects.

“Like other resorts, Soneva Fushi operates a desalination plant to turn seawater into freshwater, a controversial process that requires significant energy to operate and poses the problem of how to dispose of the brine discharge. Aware of the environmental impact of the operation, Soneva Fushi has introduced a number of measures to reduce water consumption, including the use of filtered seawater in its swimming pools, collecting rainwater to make its reverse-osmosis desalination plant more efficient, connecting newly renovated guest rooms to a grey-water recycling system, and growing native plant species, which require no additional irrigation.

To highlight water conservation issues in the Maldives as well as around the world, the resort is gathering together conservationists and the world’s top surfers, windsurfers, kite surfers, divers and free divers for debates, workshops and water-related activities.

On Emboodhu Finolhu island, Taj Exotica Resort & Spa is also committed to running a responsible operation. It has reduced its CO2 emissions per guest to 32kg, compared to the luxury hotel average of 54kg, thanks to a number of initiatives. For example, it has covered the roofs of its villas with coconut palm leaves gathered locally, and it is recovering heat from three diesel generator sets by running cold water through heat “jackets”, which produces water at 60?C. “We’re capturing the heat that would otherwise escape, saving on the diesel required to power our generators,” explains the resort’s general manager Girish Sehgal. “It’s saved us 109,500 litres of diesel a year.”

The resort has also installed a rainwater harvesting system, which collects nearly 900,000 litres of water annually, and uses a water bottling system producing still and sparkling water in reusable glass bottles, sparing the waste of 10,000 plastic bottles each year. “We also have endemic trees and plants that don’t require any additional watering, which has saved us an extra 10,000 litres of water,” adds Sehgal.

Working with environmentalists and the local Environmental Protection Agency, the resort is also building dykes from dead coral (extracted to provide the channels required for boats to access the inner atolls). “Because they are made from coral rather than cement, they are able to host plants and algae that provide food for small fish, which in turn attracts bigger fish, encouraging marine life as well as helping to stop beach erosion,” he adds.

Coral—the solution to sea-level rises?
But it could be live coral that holds the key to sea level resilience on the Maldives. Apart from the biodiversity of the Maldives coral reef system—the seventh largest in the world, it hosts over 1,900 species of fish and nearly 200 coral species—it acts as a natural sea defence. In fact, recent research published in Global and Planetary Change suggests that some growing coral landmasses may help protect nations, including the Maldives, from potentially being eroded away completely by rising sea levels. “Corals have the ability to keep pace with the projected rates of sea level rises over the next 100 years,” says associate professor Paul Kench of the University of Auckland, one of the authors of the report. “However, where reefs are stressed and polluted this may be more challenging and cause reefs to be inundated.”

Coral conservation has been the focus of some exciting initiatives undertaken by a number of resorts in the Maldives. The Beach House, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, part of Hilton Worldwide, is involved in a coral reef regeneration project that allow guests to select and “plant” a patch of coral reef, using a propagation technique developed by Seamarc, a local marine consultancy. The resort’s marine biologist harvests damaged but living coral, which is attached by guests to a circular wireframe structure and “replanted” in the resort’s lagoon, thereby replenishing old habitats and creating new areas of reef. Guests are then kept informed on the progress of their patch through email updates.

Four Season’s Reefscapers coral propagation project is also proving to be a great success; between 2005 and 2010 it transplanted over 120,000 fragments of coral. “In 1998, El Niño destroyed most of the shallow reef coral and caused serious coral bleaching,” explains Armando Kraenzlin, regional vice-president and general manager of Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru. “At the time, people were predicting the end of the reefs but the natural coral has been slowly recovering with a 20% increase in coral cover around the resorts. Techniques developed through Reefscapers are now being used in the global development of artificial reef generation.”

What next?
While sea level rises pose an existential threat to coral atoll nations like the Maldives, threatening to wipe them off the map altogether, what is less clear scientifically is how long this process will take. “Much depends on how far international efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases can succeed,” says Mark Lynas, President Nasheed’s adviser on climate change. “In many ways the survival of countries like the Maldives now depends on the actions of others.”

That includes the collective actions of the hospitality and tourism sectors, but particularly those located on the “front line” of climate change. They will find themselves under increasing pressure to find new and effective ways to mitigate the effects of climate change and sea level rise, and to adapt to it, in order to continue to enjoy the lucrative tourist trade generated by these “paradise” islands. With the government of the Maldives recently revealing plans for a carbon-neutral “floating” golf course, linked by underwater tunnels to surrounding hotels, all survival options to safeguard the future of the Maldives will be considered.

For Further Information:

Dutch Docklands

The dynamic response of reef islands to sea-level rise: evidence from multi-decadal analysis of island change in the Central Pacific

Four Seasons

The Maldives Ministry of Housing, Transport & Environment

The Maldives President’s Office

Six Senses

Taj Exotica Hotel & Spa

UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 4th Assessment Report of 2007


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