Maldives president seeks help for ‘paradise drowning’

SINGAPORE (AFP) – Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom made an impassioned plea Tuesday for a cut in global greenhouse gas emissions, warning that rising sea levels could submerge his paradise island chain.

He launched a book at the UN-backed Business for the Environment conference to highlight the threat to his South Asian tropical island chain favoured by tourists for its white sandy beaches, clear waters and swaying palm trees.

“My people are blessed with one of the most beautiful settings that nature has to offer… To many people across the world, our shores have indeed become an earthly paradise. This paradise, though, is endangered,” he said.

“Each year, the seas that make up 99 percent of the Maldives are rising, and, slowly but surely, engulfing our 1,192 low-lying islands and posing serious risks to the lives and livelihoods of the people.”

He said he chose the title “Paradise Drowning” for his book because “it evokes an image fraught with great danger” and “most clearly encapsulates the threat of climate change and sea-level rise to my people.”

Speaking to reporters later, Gayoom said the country can only adapt to the problem by relocating citizens to safer islands. Building protective walls on 193 inhabited islands would cost about six billion US dollars, which the government finds too expensive, he said.

Gayoom said the real culprit for rising sea levels is global warming and the solution lies in countries cutting the carbon dioxide emissions which have been blamed for the phenomenon.

He said it was ironic that although the Maldives accounts for only 0.01 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the country could be “possibly the biggest victim of global warming.”

At the rate at which sea levels are rising, the islands would be rendered “uninhabitable in the not-too-distant future,” he said.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said the problem outlined by Gayoom mirrors the fate of other low-lying territories worldwide.

“The challenge they are facing is one of continued existence,” Steiner told AFP on the sidelines of the conference.

“In the Maldives, it is possibly losing many of its islands and even one day… losing a whole nation,” Steiner said, adding that many other coastal areas are in the same predicament.

“Many of the Asian coastal zones, Africa’s coastal zones, are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise,” he warned.

Steiner also criticised those who argue the threat is being exaggerated.

“If you want to know what the consequences are, take a look at what the tsunami did in a few seconds and you get an idea of what destruction will arise from sea-level rise,” he said, referring to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The tsunami killed 220,000 people in countries around the region and damaged 10 percent of the Maldives’ inhabited islands.

But Gayoom said there was still hope as governments are negotiating a global treaty that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change aimed at committing countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Ultimately, what it (the book) signals is hope — hope that humankind will find consensus and a clear will to act. I am confident that we, the peoples of the world, will not allow this paradise to drown,” he said.

More than 500 business executives, government officials, environmentalists and others from 30 countries have gathered for the two-day conference.

It is organised by the United Nations Environment Programme and the UN’s Global Compact, an initiative which brings companies together with UN and other agencies to support environmental and social principles.

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