Fortress Maldives: Protecting islands against climate change comes at a price

UN climate summit in Paris must drive investment in mangrove forests, sea walls, coral reefs and fresh water access critical to the future of small island states

By Thoriq Ibrahim

This week, government ministers meeting in Paris will try to resolve a number of contentious issues that threaten to derail UN negotiations less than a month before a once-in-a-generation climate change summit convenes in the French capital.

Much progress has been made toward an agreement with some 150 countries, large and small, now having submitted national plans to reduce the greenhouse emissions responsible for the crisis. But significant differences remain and a deal is by no means a foregone conclusion.

As often seems to be the case in this process, money is behind much of the discord.

Developing countries argue that the developed parties most responsible for the vast majority of historic emissions have an obligation to help them avoid carbon-intensive development pathways and manage climate impacts that can no longer be avoided.

On the other hand, developed countries want to limit the amount of resources they commit to and, understandably, need to know that the financing they provide is put to good use.

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I therefore thought it would be useful to describe some of the plans my country, the Maldives, has developed to build climate resilience, but has been unable to implement due to insufficient resources. Many other small island states around the world are in a similar position.

For us, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami underscored our vulnerability to environmental risks. While obviously not related to climate change (though elevated sea levels likely worsened its impacts), the tragedy graphically illustrates the extensive damage surging seas can inflict on unprotected shores.

Prior to the event, we had worked with partners to install concrete tetrapods to protect our densely populated capital, Malé. The defences work by diminishing the power of crashing waves. In fact, while water rose throughout the island during the tsunami, the damage to Malé could have been far worse.

Other islands in our archipelago were n0t as fortunate. Some 82 of our citizens were killed in the disaster as the ocean inundated entire villages and damages were estimated at exceeding 60% of our GDP. Additionally, the rush of seawater contaminated drinking supplies across the country.

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Today, with sea level rise and other climate impacts expected to worsen in the years to come, we have embarked on an ambitious effort to build resilience. Known as the Safe Islands Programme, it builds on hard lessons learned from the tsunami—many of which can be applied to developing climate resiliency moving forward.

Unfortunately it is not cost-effective to use the coastal defence system that worked so well in Malé across our archipelago. However, there are many steps we can take to minimise impacts.

First, populations on some of the most outlying islands were relocated to places with better natural protections and food and water security contingency plans were created.

Second, we learned that we have to make significant investments in diversifying our economy so people are not so dependent on marine-based industries and tourism in the event of another disaster.

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Third, jetties, harbours, and sea walls can dramatically bolster resilience in coastal communities, but we still require extensive support to build them to the level required.

Fourth, these new environmental realities have been integrated into our economic development plans for fishing communities and tourist destinations alike.

Strict building requirements have helped restore and protect natural barriers to storms, like mangrove forests and coral reefs. At the same time, innovative designs have put our resorts at the forefront of the sustainable tourism movement. But a lack of resources is preventing us from achieving our vision.

Of course, managing climate change over the long-term requires all countries to tackle the problem at its root by cutting emissions much more than is currently being considered.

But part of the solution must also include helping places on the front lines of the crisis adapt and thrive.

Our experience shows we can build remarkable resilience in natural and human environments by investing in smart planning and design.

A deal in Paris that ignores this aspect of the international response to the crisis would fall short of our shared objective.

Thoriq Ibrahim is the environment minister for Maldives and chairs the Alliance of Small Island States.

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