With 70 percent of its GDP linked to tourism, the COVID-19 wrecking ball has crashed hard into the Maldives economy. UNDP’s latest Assessment on Livelihoods published this month revealed a precipitous fall in the number of tourists. As a result hotels are closing, service industries are shedding jobs, and the national budget is haemorrhaging money. The border closure and travel ban during the tourist season will have a dramatic impact on the industry, as well as a ripple effect on the country’s economy.
Yet, if this health and economic crisis is addressed responsibly, tourism will recover. But there is an even greater threat that could shatter the tourist industry and the economy, from which it may not recover; global warming.
While attention is focused on the coronavirus COVID-19, we must not forget the damage being wrought by climate change. Sea level records for the past 20 years show an increase of nearly four millimetres per year in the capital Malé. According to the Ministry of Environment, sea level rise is projected to increase some 40-50 centimetres by 2100. This means beach erosion, flooding, increased groundwater salination of groundwater, and unpredictable weather that is already causing both floods and droughts. Because 80 percent of Maldivians living within 100 metres of the sea, the physical impact of these changes represents an existential threat.
That threat is not visible, if you walk down to the harbour, on the island of Villingili, as families take to the beach, on weekends. The cool easterly breeze carries with it the laughter of children playing in the waves and sand. What is visible underwater is the damage caused by rising sea temperatures: the destruction of coral which supports marine life, seagrass beds, lagoons, and mangroves that form the coastal ecosystem of the Maldives.
The reef, the seventh largest in the world, is rich in biodiversity and is home to rare and spectacular species. This coastal and marine environment supports the tourism and fishing industry, which are critical to the Maldives economy. Without much greater conservation efforts and funding to help protect it, it could well be lost.
Small as it is, the Maldives contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The energy demands of an urban economy in the middle of the ocean keep growing to meet tourist desires and middle-class needs. Energy imports, especially in the electricity and transport sectors, make it more vulnerable to the fluctuations of international energy prices, which has led the government to consider sustainable sources, such as solar power.
As consumer demands increase, so do the number of cargo ships and planes that bring in the goods to meet those demands. This has led to a rise in waste generated by residents, as well as the 1.7 million tourists that usually arrive every year.
Alarmed by the bleak future, the Maldives parliament is planning to establish its first-ever Climate Act, which will set limits on pollution, and adopt measures to protect and help regenerate the environment.
The country must make the switch to renewable energy, but government action alone will not be enough. The country’s private sector, especially tourism and its related sectors, must adhere to new standards. This will necessitate changes in consumption, and a transformation in the current business models from tourism to more emphasis on small businesses.
As development hums in villages and town and the new urban centre of Hulumale, on the beach in Villingili, another group is trying to reverse the effects of global warming. Save the Beach, a civil society partner of UNDP, is trying to restore broken and bleached coral reefs. When we visited them a few months ago, they invited us to “jump right in”.
As we snorkelled against the currents, we passed over a depressing expanse of broken and bleached reef. It ran grey, with nary a movement. Then as we got further, bursts of orange and purple appeared ahead. These new outcrops of emerging coral hung onto to metal nursery frames, laid down by the volunteers. Fish were darting in and out of the coral nurseries.
The juxtaposition of mega-construction of an urban centre, and the volunteer-led regeneration of coral reefs, are symbolic of a range of necessary measures that will be needed to ensure a sustainable future, for the Maldives. Both are needed, and both must incorporate sustainability measures into the design and development that complement each other, accompanied by political commitment and funding, to renew the natural environment.
The pandemic has illustrated that we can act collectively to combat a major crisis. So, whether we create a greener future will depend on our ability to act fast and make the necessary behavioural changes.
Our underwater excursion revealed how vital oceans are to island economies, and to the planet. COVID-19 will come and go; it will have its impact and teach us some vital lessons; but it won’t define the Maldives’ future.
That future, of beaches lost, and bleached and broken reefs, versus a sea with an explosion of colours and marine life, will depend on the choices we make.
This blog was originally published here.