For islanders, global warming is issue of life or death Slight rise in sea level could submerge nations

December 04, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

THULUSDHOO, Maldives -- In this nation of sandbars, global warming is not some dry idea best left to the scientists.

It's death by drowning.

Eighty percent of the Maldives, a sparkling sweep of 1,180 islands in the Indian Ocean, sits less than 3 feet above the water's surface.

That means that under some of the more credible scenarios for rising sea levels, the entire nation could vanish into the sea.

"We would be environmental refugees," said Hussain Shihab, the Maldives' former minister for environmental affairs.

The fear has penetrated the consciousness of this nation of 263,000 people, spurring talk and action of an intensity unseen in the West. And it has created a deep sense of frustration, that a nation of fewer than 3,000 carbon-dioxide-emitting automobiles could perish from consequences it cannot control.

As representatives of 160 nations meet this week in Japan to negotiate cutbacks in the output of the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming, few countries carry more urgent pleas than the 30-odd small island states of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.

For such countries -- the Maldives, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji and others -- even a small rise in the world's sea levels could mean not just washed-out sea walls and eroded coastlines but national catastrophe and even extinction.

With the most to lose, the small island states are pushing for the zTC sharpest reductions in greenhouse gases.

While the United States has proposed that industrialized countries stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by 2012, the 35-nation Alliance of Small Island States is pushing for a 20 percent cutback from 1990 levels by 2005.

"We don't think that's unreasonable," said Abdullahi Majeed, the Maldives' deputy minister for the environment. "This is a matter of life and death for us."

While the exact nature and timing of the threat probably won't be clear for years, island countries have every reason to worry. The International Panel on Climate Change, a group of top researchers from 25 countries, predicts that by 2100, sea levels could rise anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet.

Even the mid-range estimates -- a rise of 20 inches -- would devastate the Maldives, wiping away some islands, shrinking others, changing the shapes of still more.

Strung out across 550 miles in 26 atolls, most of the Maldives take up less than a square mile. Few have sea walls. At Male International Airport, the ocean laps both sides of the runway.

Residents of the Maldives say they already have noticed that their climate -- two barely perceptible seasons of sultry winds and soggy monsoons -- has begun to turn.

Two catastrophic storms in the past decade caused more damage than any in recent memory.

In 1987, one-third of Male, the Maldives' capital and most populous island, was under water. In 1991, the airport was closed for three days, its runway submerged.

Dharavandhoo lost 1,000 feet of beach. Huraagandu, for a time, submerged completely.

"We never had storms like that 30 years ago," said Amina Fulhu, 60, a resident of Thulusdhoo. "You cannot predict the weather anymore."

The islands have begun to prepare for the worst. While total submersion of the Maldives would take a century or more, the consequences in the meantime would be grave.

So with the help of a $30 million grant from Japan, the Maldives is building a 9-foot-high concrete wall around Male to protect it from another big storm. Other islands already have been ringed with breakwaters. The government has banned most coral mining because the stony skeletons act as a natural barrier.

Just as visible is the government's campaign to make sure the citizens know about rising sea levels -- and who's causing them. Teachers in the oceanfront Kalaafaanu School, where salt and sand dust the hallways, teach their youngest students about global warming.

Despite the slow pace of efforts to combat the greenhouse effect, some Maldivians, such as Ali Rilwan, see a measure of hope.

"Ten years ago, we couldn't get anyone interested," said Rilwan, an environmentalist on Male. "Now, at least we've got their attention."

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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