After clearing the palm trees and coral from their mind, rising sea levels and climate change are the things most think of when it comes to the Maldives. But few who spend an extended time in the country will ever hear it discussed.
The most common topic of debate remains the unchanging political climate. Islanders turn their backs to the encroaching ocean in sandy cafes each night to pore over the latest dramas from the capital.
But their number has ebbed in recent years, however, as strong social and economic currents pull families to Male at an alarming rate, leaving fewer people than ever to observe the effects of changing tides in the sleepy atolls.
Alternatively, it is perhaps more practical reasons that may explain the apparent lack of concern with what many scientists see as the islands’ inevitable submersion. Changing shorelines have always been a normal part of island life, long before environmentalists interpreted eroded beaches as evidence of rapidly rising seas.
Indeed, after visiting the islands for the first time in 1879, H.C.P Bell noted the following:
“Among the natives an idea is prevalent that the islands gradually waste away and decrease in number by the constant action of the surf. In some the fringing cocoanuts [sic] stand in the water, whilst in others the submerged black soil of the islands is discernible at low water, some yards from the beach.
It is, however, acknowledged that reefs have risen from the water, and barren sandbanks become habitable wooded islands.”
Further muddying the rising waters are modern structures – such as harbours and jetties – which disrupt the natural pattern of sand dispersal on the islands, causing uneven erosion. The picture above shows the encroaching waves at Kaafu Thulusdhoo, which have advanced upon the children’s play park dramatically in the past ten years.
Resorts keep up appearances by pumping the sand back around the island, while local island attrition can be alleviated with grand reclamation projects, such as the 33 new hectares of land reclaimed on the west of Thulusdhoo in 2014, complete with coastal protection walls.
So, the eerie silence may be the stoicism of an island nation inured to battling the elements, or the concerns may be drowned out by social and economic changes that are eroding island life faster than sea-levels ever could.
Either way, climate change is a topic you will rarely hear Maldivians talk about.