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Raising the Maldives
Saudi Aramco World / May-June 2009

By Larry Luxner

It's another oppressively hot afternoon on the artificial island of Hulhumalé, as Bangladeshi work crews lay asphalt for a new street and a loudspeaker atop the golden-domed Qatar Mosque calls faithful Muslims to prayer.

Inside the nearby Solitaire Cafe, half a dozen men sit in darkness, smoking cigarettes, as they wait for the lights to come back on after a mid-day power failure.

Despite the annoyance, café owner Abdullah Waseem is clearly upbeat.

"I love it here," says the 41-year-old father of two as he dishes out curried chicken and pours glasses of tea. Born and raised in Addu — at the southern tip of the 768-kilometer (475-mi) Maldive archipelago — he has spent most of his life in Malé, the capital city. There, his family was crammed into a two-room dwelling.

Four years ago, he rented a four-room apartment and became one of the first of what are now some 5,000 permanent residents of Hulhumalé', a box-shaped island created from landfill just across the sea from overcrowded Malé.

"When we came here, there were very few facilities, no clinics, no police service, nobody to look after this place," he says. "People thought it would take a long time to develop Hulhumalé. But it's much better now, and it costs about 40 percent less to live here than in Malé."

So crowded is Malé, in fact, that roughly 90,000 of the 385,000 people who call the Maldives home are packed into the tiny island's 2.6 square kilometers (1 sq mi). That makes Malé and its jumble of high-rises one of the most densely populated capital cities on Earth — an irony in a country comprised of 1,192 islands, the vast majority of them remote and uninhabited, smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Ibn Battuta, the famous 14th-century Moroccan traveler, called the Maldives "one of the wonders of the world" and commented on the islands' proximity to each other: "A hundred or so are arranged in a circle like a ring, with an opening at one point to form a passage ... They are so close together that when leaving one, the tops of the palm trees on the next are visible."

Yet ultramodern, man-made Hulhumalé neither looks nor feels anything like its natural sister islands. From its conception only eight years ago, in 1997, to its official inauguration on May 12, 2004, this work-in-progress is being meticulously planned to boost the country's economic fortunes while staving off the rising seas that may one day wipe muich of the world's smallest Muslim nation off the map.

For starters, Hulhumalé is, by Maldivian standards, high ground. It rises two meters above sea level, double the elevation of some 80 percent of the other islands, measurnine-tenths of a centimeter per year, the entire country — save Hulhumalé — could be inundated within a century. And Hulhumalé's wide boulevards, carefully landscaped gardens and serried ranks of apartment blocks offer a dramatic contrast to impromptu, colorful hubbub of Malé, only 20 minutes away by ferry.

Hulhumalé was the brainchild of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who late last year stepped down after a 30-year dictatorship. Under Gayoom, the Maldives became the first country to sign the 1997 Kyoto protocol urging reductions in greenhouse emissions linked to global warming. It was Gayoom, too, who, after severe flooding in 1987, secured Japanese financing to build a concrete breakwater three meters tall around Malé. A nd well before global warming became a household term, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, it was Gayoom who warned that his country might have less than a century before it disappeared underneath the waves.

Until then, say scientists, the likely effects on the Maldives of gradually rising temperatures include increased coastal erosion, increasing salinity of freshwater sources, altered tidal ranges and patterns and, most significantly, the gradual deterioration, even destruction of the coral reefs that comprise both the islands themselves and the natural breakwaters against the deep ocean just beyond.

"Over half of our islands are eroding at an alarming rate," Gayoom told delegates in 2007 at the United Nations climate change meeting in Bali. Already, "in some cases, island communities have had to be relocated to safer islands. Without immediate action, the long-term habitation of our tiny islands is in serious doubt."

One such island is Meedhoo, located 140 kilometers (87 mi) north of Malé and home to around 2,000 people.

Ishaag Ahmed, off duty from his job as a security guard at the health clinic, is lounging on a beach hammock with friends. His brother owns a shop that caters to European tourists arriving on day trips from nearby Meedhupparu. The shop's name is Ozone.

Like most of his friends, Ahmed, 38, doesn't seem worried about global warming.

"We have a government, and if the time comes to leave, the government will decide where to put us," says the former fishing-boat captain, speaking in Dhivehi, the national language of the Maldives. A tour guide translates for him. Ahmed insists there's no way he'd live in Malé, and that in Hulhumalé, "there's nothing special for us."

Just a 10-minute walk from Ozone is a makeshift refugee camp housing some 200 refugees from Kandholhudhoo, an island heavily damaged in the December 2004 tsunami that killed more than 225,000 in 11 countries, including more than 100 in the Maldives.

In what might be a scene from the future, the people in the camp live in houses of wood and corrugated metal sheeting, 12 to 15 to a room. For nearly five years, the government has promised to build houses for them on another island, Dhuvaafaru. In the meantime, the refugees pass the time playing cards, learning English and kicking a soccer ball around a dusty field.

In Kandholhudhoo, a densely populated island north of Malé, tidal surges, with increasing frequency, flood the homes of people who remain. Some 60 percent of the island's residents have volunteered to evacuate over the next 15 years.

Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, who took office in November, is aggressively pushing forestation to hold back erosion, the cleanup of coral reefs to slow their deterioration, and the teaching of environmental protection in all Maldivian schools. In mid-March, he announced that the Maldives has set a goal to become the world's first carbon-neutral country by 2020. His government is working with international climate experts to plan for wind- and solar-energy production — something he hopes might also attract eco-tourists.

In the meantime, Nasheed has another plan. Soon after his election, he announced that part of the country's tourism income will go into a sovereign wealth fund that will be used to acquire land in nearby countries such as India, Sri Lanka or even Australia.

"We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own, and so we have to buy land elsewhere. It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome," Nasheed told the British newspaper The Guardian.

That idea doesn't sit well with Malé cabdriver Ahmed Hussain.

"Nobody wants to go to India or Sri Lanka. They're much poorer than the Maldives," says Hussain as he navigates his taxi through Malé's narrow, congested streets. "We'd rather go to the Middle East or Europe. But I hope it won't happen, because we don't want to be climate refugees."

Considering the blunt warnings of President Nasheed and his precedessor, it's surprising more Maldivians don't express alarm at what might befall their beloved country only a few generations from now.

"It won't happen. The Maldives will not go under water," insists Mohammed U. Lantra, general manager of Adaaran, whose eight resorts are popular with high-end European, Russian and Japanese tourists. "Yes, the sea level is rising, but at the rate it's rising, it will take maybe 100 years or more. By that time, none of us will be living."

Lantra is far more worried about the global economic crisis than global warming.

He has reason to worry: Last year, the Maldives attracted 500,000 tourists and earned more than a billion dollars from them. But this year, tourism is expected to be down sharply. Lantra points out that the Maldives are not a cheap destination. In fact, we are considered one of the most expensive resorts in the world."

Owned by the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, Adaaran is the largest foreign hotel company in the Maldives, employing more than 1,000 people. "When tourists want to visit a country, they're not interested in knowing what ocean it's in," said Lantra. "They want a nice destination where they'll be safe and get good value for their money."

Bob Blake, ambassador from the United States to both Sri Lanka and the Maldives, agrees.

"The Maldives has already seen a substantial economic transformation over the last 25 years, thanks largely to the beautiful resorts they have built," said Blake, who is one of few ambassadors accredited to the Maldives. The US has given the Maldives both economic assistance and political support in its transition from dictatorship to democracy. Thanks to tourism development, says Blake, "the Maldives has gone from being South Asia's poorest country to its richest in just one generation.

Yet there is relatively high youth unemployment, said Blake. "Despite all the development, the country still relies principally on tourism and fishing for all of its income, and it has to import almost everything."

One island tourists rarely visit is Hulhumalé, though the Lonely Planet travel guide suggests "coming here makes a fascinating contrast to the chaotic capital — here the planning is so precise and mathematical, you could be on the film set of Brave New World."

Nuha Mohammed Riza is deputy director of the Hulhumalé Development Corp. (HDC), a government entity that's overseeing the construction of Hulhumalé.

Asked about global warming, she said "this is not something we think about every day, but we also understand that small, low-lying countries like the Maldives are at risk. We need to have measures in place on how to deal with it. But for now, it's a long way off."

Ahmed Karam, who works in public relations for HDC, says beaches are shrinking, little by little. "I used to go to Viligili for picnics when I was a kid, and the beach was bigger then," he says, referring to an island 10 minutes west of Malé by ferry. "Now, the waves come right up to the trees."

In the meantime, HDC is working to attract investment to Hulhumalé.

"Our main objective was to relieve the congestion problem in Malé, and at the same time develop this island into a commercial and industrial hub," says Riza. "In Malé, there's no land available because it has gotten so crowded."

At present, Hulhumale measures 1.8 square kilometers (0.69 sq mi) and a causeway connects it to Hulhulé, the "airport island" from which foreign visitors arrive and depart.

Built entirely from reclaimed sand and coral dredged from the surrounding lagoon, Hulhumalé is envisioned to house 50,000 people when the first phase of its construction is completed by 2020. By then, the planners say, the island boast government offices, an industrial zone, shopping centers, tree-lined boulevards, a marina, a national stadium and some dozen mosques.

A second, more ambitious, phase involves reclaiming a further 2.4 square kilometers (0.92 sq mi), more than doubling the size of Hulhumalé and bringing the island's population to 150,000.

Investment in the project, Riza says, is mostly from the government, with "a bit" from the private sector. "We have three residential neighborhoods where most of the social housing is focused," she says. "In addition, we have an industrial area where plots of land are being leased for carpentry, workshops, warehousing and small fish-processing plants. We already have two processing plants operating."

Cookie-cutter apartment buildings rising to 12 stories are beginning to dot the island, which already also has a school, a pharmacy, lots of shops and at least two Internet cafes.

"We sell the units to the public at cost. We have already sold close to 400 individual plots of land for development," she said. "The people who buy the land build their own houses. Land costs $30 per square foot here, compared to $600 per square foot in Malé."

As a result, snaring an apartment on Hulhumalé can feel like winning a lottery.

"For every round of social housing development we've announced, we see the number of applicants far exceed the available supply," she says, noting that more than 9,000 people applied for the 504 housing units currently under construction.

"It's really overcrowded on Malé, and people want to have nicer accommodations. Also, I think Hulhumalé will provide better housing, education and health facilities," she says, adding that for the last two years she has been commuting by boat every day from Malé. "I would also want to live here, once it's more developed," she admits. "But at the moment, there's not much entertainment. There aren't enough people here."

Indeed, not all is paradise in this utopia, which clearly lacks the charm and appeal of crowded, colorful Malé.

"In Hulhumalé, we have only one problem: nobody is responsible for these islanders," complains Waseem, the café owner. "On Malé and other islands, there are island chiefs. But here we have only the HDC. And if somebody gets sick or injured, we don't even have a hospital."

Yet when asked about global warming, Waseem cheerfully brushes the question aside. "I'm not worried," he says as he waited on a customer. "God will look after us."

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