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Maldives going under water: new look at a doomsday story
19 Oct, 2009 07:02:18
By W A Wijewardene
Oct 19, 2009 (LBO) - A great deal of fear has been expressed by many that on one fine day in the future the Maldives will be submerged by rising sea levels without leaving even a trace of those beautiful islands that have attracted thousands of visitors to them for thousands of years.
The chain of causal factors that have been identified as contributing to this catastrophe has also been clearly laid down: the emission of green house gases in excessive amounts to the atmosphere creating an abnormal global warming process on the planet, the resultant melting of the glaciers in the North and the South Poles, the consequent rise in sea levels that take the low lying lands as its first victims.

First victim of global warming

The Maldives which, on average, is only one to one and a half meters above sea level will, therefore, naturally qualify to be the first victim. Some have even given a time frame to the much feared submersion starting from around 2025 and ending by 2040 AD.

The government of the Maldives too has expressed its concerns in public about the possible submersion and demanded prompt action by the world’s nations to prevent it.

In an unprecedented move to draw their attention to the dangers of the uncurbed global warming process, it held one of its recent Cabinet meetings under-water and passed a resolution to that effect.

The economic impact

The economy of the Maldives will suffer due to the mere talk of a submersion within the next 15 to 30 years and its wide acceptance by all. It does not have to wait for the actual submersion to take place.

In the first place, the Maldives with its low savings and poor savings habits has been depending on foreign savings for maintaining the required investments for creating wealth and generating economic growth. The high economic growth which the country has experienced during the last two decades raising its per capita income to the highest level in South Asia was exclusively brought about by the development of the tourism sector harnessing foreign capital. The talk of a possible submersion of the islands within the next two decades will scare away the long term investors. Instead, only those who plan to reap the full benefit from their investments within a short period of time will show interest in the country.

Second, the well-to-do in the Maldives who have the capacity to re-invest their wealth in the country will also move out their capital and invest else where. This has already happened in the case of real estate. The rich, having taken their cue from the warning signals emitted continuously from around the early 1990s, have started to acquire property in neighbouring Sri Lanka and Malaysia so that they could make a seamless exodus when doomsday comes.

The problem will be compounded by the Maldivian government’s regulation that foreigners have to team up with a local partner in order to start businesses in the country. If local investors are not willing, the foreigners are handicapped and fettered.

Corals boosted by warm waters

So, it is of interest to examine whether the doomsday story is real and if so, what Maldivians could do about it.

The belt of Maldivian islands has been created by the growth of corals for many thousands of years. It has become a continuous process under which new islands are being created by the growing corals and the existing islands are being submerged due the reverse of the same. Corals need warm water, at an average temperature of 15º C and 30º C, to grow. Hence, global warming will help the Maldives to boost its island structure up to a certain level by speeding up the growth of corals. The real disaster will come when the warmth of the sea exceeds 40º C. According to experts on global warming, it would take at least another 1000 years for the temperature to reach that level. Hence, the feared catastrophe will not take place within the next two decades or so, but much later.

Is the linear world model correct?

The global warming process is also subject to questioning because it is based on a linear model of natural forces. It assumes that the future events in the globe will take place on a clearly marked line so that the world’s temperature standing at a given level today will invariably rise to a predicted level along the line on a given future date. This linear world model cannot accommodate the random events that may take place from time to time and changes in the cause-and-effect process leading to deviations from the linear growth.

A good example is the prediction made by scientists belonging to the Club of Rome in the mid-1960s, based on a linear world model, that the world’s fossil fuel resources will be exhausted by the early 1990s. But, this did not take place because, the high oil prices during the subsequent periods generated a different cause-and-effect process. They led to the conservation of existing oil resources, the discovery of new deposits and the use of alternative energy sources thereby reducing the demand for fossil fuels on the one hand and increasing the overall energy supplies on the other.

Hence, there is a possibility of the non-linear natural growth creating results different to those of scientists who have based their predictions on a linear world model.

Options for the Maldives

Even if the scientists are correct and the Maldives faces a real threat of being submerged, that will not be the end of the story.

Human ingenuity to respond appropriately to catastrophes has always been marvellous.

The Maldives, in this respect, has two options which can be pursued together. First, it can construct dykes around its to keep the rising sea water away, just like the Netherlands, a country lying below the sea level, has done for many centuries. A dyke to a height of about two meters has already been constructed around a half of the capital city, Male. It requires covering the balance part of the city with a dyke and raising its height by only a few more meters. For other islands which are threatened, new dykes can be constructed.

Second, it can use the modern island construction technology to increase the overall elevation of its threatened islands. The Maldives has already created two artificial islands by using this technology: Thilafushi, by dumping the garbage and covering the garbage with sea sand, and Hulumale by pumping sea sand from the deep sea by using modern high power pumping machinery.

So, the Maldives already possesses the know-how and the technology. What it lacks is capital.

What should the government do?

The Maldivian government can generate a part of the capital by running a surplus in the current account of its budget. This requires only a small change in its policy: introduce income tax for individuals and corporates and reduce the recurrent expenditure. The greater part of the capital can be raised from foreign capital markets in the same way Dubai has done, when it ventured to create a whole new world off-shore by using modern island construction technology.

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