The Maldives, a paradise on earth slipping under the sea

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8 April 2010

The archipelago is the delight of advertisements and holiday agents with its postcard dreams, but the picture is not rosy: the sea threatens to swallow up this rare and still preserved natural habitat. Hence, the interest of government officials, who’ve come to salute the work of the “Taranauts” for the preservation of the marine environment and the planet.

Suddenly, like a mirage: a green fringe, a hyphen slides onto the horizon line between the blues of sky and sea. No doubt: just above, light clouds confirm the presence of a piece of land in the middle of the ocean. With binoculars, one picks out this time a thin beach of white sand, which underlines a palm-tufted grove, hemmed with a crown of turquoise water. On board Tara, everyone who can is on deck, eyes looking through camera sights, mouths agape: the first islets of the northernmost atoll of the Maldives archipelago appear before our eyes, seized by the magical scenery. We make a little stop in the lagoon amongst the fishermen for immigration formalities as a shoal of dolphins arrive to complete this idyllic painting. The ‘bathwater’ is more than 300 C, and even if microscopic jellyfish irritate the skin, we all succumb to the beauty of the place.

This image of paradise is, however, fragile and menaced. A dramatic illustration of the danger: on the 26th of December, 2004 when the tsunami wave from the Philippines arrived here, it overwhelmed practically this whole small country, and took, with its passing, 89 victims. The streets of Malé, the capital which reaches…2m above sea level, were flooded, like most of the 1,200 islands of this exceptional territory, made up of a series of atolls stretching like a track of confetti to the south-east of the Indian peninsula. But, if tidal waves remain a danger, which can strike at any moment this Eden between sky and sea, it is the warming of the climate, which worries the authorities most. To such a point that, just before the large Copenhagen conference on climate, the Maldives government met symbolically dressed in divers outfits at the bottom of a lagoon to alert public opinion to the scenario awaiting this territory situated at sea level. A shocking image was not sufficient, however, for the leaders of the world to agree amongst themselves on concrete measures to stop the phenomenon.

Life is pleasant in the Maldives. And not only for the 300,000 tourists (as many as the Maldives population!) who, every year, come to relax in the “sea bungalows” (hotel rooms on stilts…foreshadowing the final deluge of the country?) or to dive on the coral reefs, which make the success of this dream destination. “One doesn’t die from hunger here,” says Adam, employed in the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, and “one can say that everyone is happy with how the leaders run the country…in any case, almost everyone!” It is true that the mild climate and courtesy of helpful inhabitants, everything appears ideal in this best of worlds, like the smallest trip is made in a canoe, suspended over the turquoise waters of the lagoon. Social peace reigns in this Muslim society and secular (only example in the world with Turkey…) after settlers who came from neighboring Sri Lanka in the 12th century. With fishing and copra (coconut), tourism has added a substantial income supplement, but the main problem of the country is far from resolved.

The overpopulation of the island’s capital, Malé, foreshadows that problem which the inexorable rise of the seas could cause. Little by little, to gain more space, one tries to encroach on the ocean by constructing embankments around the existing islands, and enlarging them like on Hulumale, airport island, or creating new artificial ones, using compacted waste as filler, like that one nick-named “garbage island” which serves as an industrial zone. It was there, in the naval yard that Tara was in dry dock for repairs below the waterline.

On all evidence, that will not be enough to save the country from general drowning. And the ecologists are worried about what this technique could have on polluting the waters, which are fished for daily consumption and are desalinated to provision the drinking water supply, already under capacity. Like stopping the coral loss due to warming waters, “the authorities are always looking for a miraculous solution and satisfy themselves by making investigations and issuing regular reports”, confirms Marie; this former civil servant launched, with her husband, into the reproduction of a more resistant species of coral, implanted with success in the zones becoming deserts. Amateur divers need not worry about their next vacations: there will always be something to see in the Maldives, at least under water!

Jérôme Bastion