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Reefs Near the Maldives Continue Decline

April 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the rising waters around the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean. Lawrence McGinty of Independent Television News reports.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY, ITV News Correspondent: As we flew over the Maldives, it was the colors that struck us most, the deep blue of the Indian Ocean, the turquoise of the lagoons, the green of the low-lying islands fringed with beaches of white sand.

That’s the dream of tourists when they come to the Maldives, but they better hurry up, because the dream is turning into a nightmare. In less than 100 years, 80 percent of these islands could disappear under the rising seas.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: The ocean is both friend and foe to people in the Maldives. We watched as fishermen landed their catch, as they always have. And now the ocean has brought wealthy tourists, who provide nearly a third of the island’s income.

But scientists explain to me it’s a threat, too, because of rising sea levels.

MOHAMED ALI, Oceanographer: The atmosphere has warmed up. As a result, it has translated into, you know, a thermal expansion of the sea, which means the sea water has been heated up so that it is expanding.

And this course of sea level has been measured to be three to five times higher than what it was in the last 100 years.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Not only that, melting ice caps far, far away are also driving sea levels up, and the Maldives are particularly vulnerable.

Take a little stroll with me from the highest place on this island to the lowest. It’s not very far, only a dozen paces or so. And that’s the whole predicament of the Maldives, because the highest spot in the whole country is less than eight feet above sea level.

We flew 100 miles from Male to an island where we saw for ourselves the human consequences of that vulnerability to rising sea levels. We went to what is, in effect, a refugee camp for people who had to leave their own island; 4,000 have had to abandon their homes.

Families like Ali Ahmed (ph), his wife and seven children, living in three rooms.

MALDIVES ISLAND RESIDENT: We have only one toilet, three rooms.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Only one toilet?

MALDIVES ISLAND RESIDENT: Yes, three rooms, only one toilet.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: We took the family back to their home on Candoladu (pH). The government had long planned to evacuate this vulnerable island, but the families didn’t want to leave their fishing businesses. These racks once would have been full of drying fish.

Was this your garden?

This was once Ahmed’s (pH) home. Like many other islanders, he was persuaded to go by the devastation of the tsunami. He told me he didn’t want to return, not because he feared another tsunami, but because rising sea levels made it unsafe.

The evacuation of this island gives us a glimpse of how climate change can affect people in a once prosperous community. But the Maldives and its crowded capital, Male, are in the front line: It’s been flooded before.

That’s why they built this sea wall, costing 10,000 pounds per yard. Yet it won’t protect them against rising sea levels, one reason why the government is a leading voice urging the rich nations to cut greenhouse gasses.

MOHAMED SHAREEF, Maldives Government Spokesperson: We might get inundated tomorrow, but you will the day after, as well. So, I mean, we’ve been kind of reminding the West or we’ve been reminding the industrial nations that maybe sea level rise will — you know, the 300,000 Maldivians might be the first victims, but, you know, soon after some of the major countries will also face this.

LAWRENCE MCGINTY: Perhaps this is the future: a brand-new island reclaimed from the sea and deliberately built a meter higher than the capital. Eventually, I was told, one in three of the population could be living here.