Drama unfolds on islands facing a watery end

First of a continuing series.

MALÉ, Maldives -- Flying low over the expanse of turquoise water that surrounds the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives at once instills a sense of both freedom and foreboding.

The Maldives is made up of nearly 1,200 coral islands, 200 of which are inhabited. At a maximum of 6.6 feet above sea level, it is widely acknowledged to be one of the world's most vulnerable nations to climate change. And it may be more vulnerable now than ever as the small, tranquil country struggles to weather a fierce political storm.

On Feb. 7, 2011, then-President Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign in what he says was a coup carried out by allies of the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who harnessed discontent among Islamic fundamentalist groups. Nasheed now faces charges that would prevent him from running in the Maldives' upcoming elections Sept. 7.

"We feel that these charges are very politically motivated, and it's become very apparent in recent days that that is so," Nasheed said in an interview. "[My opponents] are fairly convinced, I believe, that holding an election with me they would have very slim chances of getting anywhere. So they have been trying to disqualify me from the elections."

Former President Gayoom ruled the Maldives for 30 years until Nasheed, a longtime democracy advocate and head of the Maldivian Democratic Party, became the country's first democratically elected president in 2008. Over the course of his tenure, Nasheed also became known as one of the world's most outspoken leaders on climate change. He stood up to big emitters like the United States and China at international climate negotiations, and he launched an initiative at home to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country by 2020.

But rising tensions in the capital of Malé could sink Nasheed's vision of a democratic and environmentally resilient Maldives. The current government, backed by Gayoom and led by President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, has alleged that Nasheed illegally detained a judge during his last days in office. If he's found guilty, he'll be blocked from running for president.


Nasheed sought refuge at the Indian High Commission here on Feb. 13. He left 10 days later after India helped negotiate his freedom to engage in political activity. But then the local police threw the tacit agreement overboard and arrested Nasheed earlier this month. In the last few days, they released him and set back his trial by four weeks.

Nasheed renewed his political campaign last week. "I am unfinished business," he said.

An 'extreme example of environmental injustice'

It's strange to think that the peaceful lapping sound of the ocean could be the harbinger of the Maldives' end. But then the signs of fragility are already apparent. Islands in the Maldives barely peek above water. Many of them look more like puddles than a piece of land, with just a ring of sand encircling a pool of water.

For the Maldives and islands like it, the impacts of climate change are particularly sharp, painful and lasting. Low-lying nations are at risk of being consumed as the seas, driven by warming, expanding seawater and glacier melting, continue what scientists say will be a long-term rise.

Long before they're submerged, the islands will be made uninhabitable by erosion, contaminated groundwater, limited natural resources and the scouring of violent storms. Homes in the Maldives have already been devoured by the ocean. The Maldivian government has had to relocate people from at least three islands for these reasons since 2010.

Most islands also have the unique issue of having to ship in diesel oil to power their communities. This high level of diesel dependence means even a small spike in oil prices can have a crippling impact on struggling island economies. Fragile political systems can compound these negative effects.

"These island nations are the only countries whose very existence is in danger [from climate change]," explained Michael Gerrard, head of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. "They almost all have very low per-capita incomes. Their greenhouse gas emissions are trivial, and thus they did absolutely nothing to create their own plight. It's one of the most extreme examples of environmental injustice."

In Gerrard's new book, "Threatened Island Nations," co-edited with Gregory Wannier, the authors write that no international agreements currently exist to obligate a nation to take in people from other countries that are displaced by climate change.

Nasheed raised the alarm on these issues while he was in office, to save not just the Maldives, but also places like the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Barbados and other Caribbean islands, and even parts of Hawaii. In 2009, he spearheaded the Climate Vulnerability Forum, a partnership of countries disproportionately affected by global warming, and led in putting human rights at the heart of climate issues.

Nasheed also made a splash in the media when he held a Cabinet meeting underwater in 2009 to highlight the threats of climate change.

"When he became head of state, the first issue he took up in front of the world was the climate change issue," said Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, international spokesman for the Maldivian Democratic Party and member of Parliament. "That has helped his profile, and I believe now what's keeping him alive at the moment is the international interest."

Hoping for clean energy competitions

The Maldives had a very low profile in the U.N. process until Nasheed stole the spotlight and the hearts of people across the globe at the 2009 U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. While many have called the summit a failure, others argue that Nasheed spearheaded the invaluable paradigm shift that all countries -- both developed and developing -- must play a role in addressing climate change.

Despite this achievement, Nasheed was disillusioned with the U.N. process after the Copenhagen talks, said Nasheed communications adviser Paul Roberts, speaking from Malaysia.

"After Copenhagen he was more like, 'Let's just forget about the rest of the world for the moment and let's pursue our renewable energy carbon-neutral goals,'" he said. "And by showing that the Maldives could do it, then other countries would."

Rather than join other developing countries fighting over their right to pollute as much as possible, Nasheed wanted to create a path where nations could compete by scaling up clean energy resources, Roberts said. It's unclear whether the current government, if elected in September, will carry this torch.

"It's an awful time," Shauna Aminath, president of the Maldivian Democratic Party Youth Wing, said in an interview at Traders Hotel in Malé. Today, some of Nasheed's supporters are afraid to go into the hotel for fear their conversations are being recorded. Aminath, who's been arrested twice at protests in recent months, dismissively said the government is likely keeping tabs on her.

"We had such great plans," Aminath recalled of the Nasheed administration. "We were moving forward. We were the center of attention in the climate change debate, and not just as victims."

On the day Nasheed was forced to leave office, his administration finished a renewable energy investment plan for submission to the World Bank that would allow the Maldives to receive $30 million to scale up clean energy programs.

"This was strictly about making funds available to the private sector, making renewable energy investments more attractive," Aminath said.

She explained that Nasheed wanted the Maldives to harness foreign investment for clean energy projects. This approach didn't sit well with Gayoom's nationalistic old guard, who saw opening up the Maldives as a threat to their entrenched interests, according to Aminath.

Nasheed insisted change had to come. "If we base our vision of a new Maldives on old technology, on fossil fuel technology, it will be wrong and does not fulfill what younger generations are looking for and wanting," he said.

His plan included a proposal to build a new grid for the Malé region that would run on a mix of wind, biomass and solar. Reducing dependence on diesel, which costs up to 16 percent of the Maldives' gross domestic product, is also key to achieving the carbon-neutral goal. The islands' diesel-powered electricity accounted for 19 percent of the Maldives' carbon dioxide emissions in 2009.

'Death of a nation,' a bipartisan production

Resorts produced 36 percent of the Maldives' CO2 emissions in 2009. These tiny islands, barely interrupting the sky and sea, draw in about three-quarters of a million people each year.

"If you want to eat caviar from Russia they will have it, if you want the finest wines from France they will have it. They will have separate cheese rooms and rooms dedicated purely for the consumption of salami and ham," Roberts said. "It's utter gluttony."

Nasheed's approach, he said, was "Let's have these amazing resorts, but let's have them with renewable energy and let's drive carbon emissions out of the supply chain."

The Waheed government completed a filing in October for the same World Bank funding Nasheed pursued, with many of the same decarbonizing initiatives, and the loan was approved in November. Roberts gave credit to the current regime for not abandoning the fight against climate change.

"I think what is good in Maldives, compared to the situation in the United States, is that both main parties and all the major players agree climate change is a problem and they need to deal with it," he said.

The former dictator Gayoom actually gave a talk before the U.N. General Assembly in 1987 dubbed "Death of a Nation" on the need to address climate change. The Maldives also sent representatives to the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro and the U.N. climate summit in Doha, Qatar, last year.

In Rio, Waheed pledged the government would ramp up efforts to protect the marine environment. Last month, Environment and Energy Minister Mariyam Shakeela announced the Maldives would become the first nation to make the entire country a biosphere reserve and complete the task by 2017.

Shakeela canceled a meeting with ClimateWire in the capital of Malé earlier this year, and has since agreed to and canceled numerous telephone interviews.

A turn to violence

Marc Limon, who served as a lead negotiator for the Maldives on human rights and climate change until late last year, said he expects the current government will keep moving forward with certain attainable environment and energy initiatives. But he added that it's unlikely the Maldives will be the world leader in climate issues that it once was.

"I don't think they're necessarily going to withdraw from things, but I think they're just far less proactive now, far less willing to take risks," he said. "President Nasheed was willing to upset China, he was willing to upset America, and you're not going to see this government doing that."

Mark Lynas, former climate change adviser to Nasheed, said he believes the new regime has lost the moral authority to be a leader on global warming.

"There is nothing specifically about having an autocratic regime which prevents you from working in the [U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change], but in the specific case of the Maldives, the claim to moral bargaining power -- which is really the only one that matters -- is undermined," he said. "Now the mantle of leadership passes off."

In July, the U.N. Human Rights Committee determined that instances of torture in the Maldives appear "both systematic and systemic." The Committee to Protect Journalists reported last month that there have been numerous attacks on reporters since Nasheed left office, including one journalist who was beaten so badly with an iron rod that he's been sent for urgent care in Sri Lanka.

Amid the violent turmoil, Lynas warned that Nasheed's ambitious plan is unraveling. "All of the political energy in the Maldives is consumed with fighting one another."

Farah Faizal, former high commissioner of the Maldives to the United Kingdom, who stepped down in the aftermath of the coup, said she's seen "mixed messages" coming from the new regime on climate change.

She pointed to some news reports quoting the new president as saying Nasheed had used the threats of sea level rise to gain publicity for himself as extremely worrying, despite other statements from the government pointing to the need to address global warming. "I feel we've lost our leadership, and that doesn't help anybody."

A mess bigger than 'Garbage Island'

One of Nasheed's plans was to bring in a foreign company to build a waste-to-energy project on Thilafushi, or as it's more often called, "Garbage Island." More than 330 tons of trash is dumped on the island each day, much of which is disposed of in big open fire pits. Visitors taking off in seaplanes bound for their secluded island resorts can't help but puzzle over the stream of toxic smoke rising into the sky.

"It's pathetic. It's a breeding place for diseases. Everything is burned there. Even plastic ... and then we breathe all that," said Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem, a retired marine researcher who served on the waste management committee during Nasheed's tenure. "We were all working together to bring a company to bring an incinerator and burn these things in an environmental way. While we were at it, he was thrown out."

The Waheed government is working on a waste management plan but has had to divert waste to India in the meantime to prevent it from overflowing into the ocean.

Abdul Hakeem said he didn't consider himself to be a political person until Nasheed was ousted, but has since changed his outlook. "For me, I will do nothing now until Nasheed is elected," he forcefully said, before calming himself down over a sip of pineapple juice. "I cannot shake hands with a man involved with a coup."

Not everyone is a Nasheed supporter, but there is a widespread sense that elections are needed so the country can start better addressing some of its many issues.

"I need someone who can help the Maldives, I don't mind who it is," said Haris Mohammed, a resident of Malé who works in the tourism industry. "Every day it's getting worse and it's affecting tourism. ... And if people aren't coming here, it will affect jobs."

As of this writing, Nasheed's name is meant to be on the ballot for the September elections. But that could change when his trial takes place next month.

Despite all his problems, Nasheed says he's not leaving. "I'm stuck now with all these people who want to do this, they built a momentum. It's not possible for me to set aside from that stream anymore," he said. "We have to keep on doing it until it is done, until we have democracy back again. We can't leave with unfinished business."

Reporter Lisa Friedman contributed.



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