Jellyfish sting inspires first book on dangerous Maldives marine life

The waters surrounding the Maldives have an international reputation for spectacular diving that entices hordes of visitors to the country every year.

Much of the credit for this goes to the prolific marine life, which ensures even the sharks are friendly – a flailing tourist is a difficult meal when all a shark has to do is open its mouth for the fish to swim inside.

But when injuries at the fins, spines, teeth and tentacles of marine life do occur, local medical facilities have proven ill-prepared to deal with them.

When local marine biologist Verena Wiesbauer Ali visited an island doctor following a nasty sting from a Pelagia panopyra (Purple Jellyfish), he asked her why she had eaten one.

“I had swam through a soup of jellyfish and the itching was so bad I couldn’t sleep,” she recalls.

The doctor treated the symptoms with an IV and some anti-histamines, but later told her there was little literature available on the country’s dangerous or toxic marine life.

“His diagnosis was ‘fish stinger’,” she says. “I felt sympathetic so I took in a photo of the jellyfish the next day and the doctor began to ask a lot of other questions.”

Much of the literature Verena found was in German, and the treatments were varied. Conventional wisdom, such as applying vinegar to a jellyfish wound to deactivate the poison, was not always the case: “If you apply vinegar to the sting of a Portugese Man o’ War, it can have the opposite effect,” Verena discovered.

Researching further she did find a great many local stories along the lines of “‘there’s an animal this shape and this wide, and if you touch it your arm will fall off.'”

Assembling a team of doctors and marine biologists, including Dr Jens Lindner and Dr Reinhard Kilinger, she decided to write the Maldives’ first reference to dangerous, venomous and poisonous marine animals.

“We felt the need for a doctor’s reference that gives a detailed description of symptoms and recommendations for medical treatment,” she says, adding that one important inclusion was a Dhivehi reference dictionary for the local names of different species and dangerous seafood, such as sea urchins.

Beyond medical applications, Verena says the authors tried to make the book accessible “for anyone coming into contact with the sea, from snorkelers and divers to tourists and marine biologists.”

It includes information and treatment instructions for creatures like lion fish (“from a group known as scorpion fish that have quite strong venom – the display they make by spreading their fins is to show prey ‘I’m poisonous'”), sharks (“there are 35 species in the Maldives, including tiger sharks which can be more aggressive”,) and sting rays.

“Sting rays lie on the sea floor feeding on mollusks,” Verena explains. “They will move away from a person, but if stepped on they have venomous spines in their tail that can be fatal, as with [Australian TV personality] Steve Irwin. Most people are hit in the shin, but the spine is serrated and it normally has to be pushed through the limb; you can’t pull it, although now we can operate it out.”

Even seemingly-harmless surgeon fish can cause painful injuries: “They have a blade at the base of their tail fin.”

At a presentation on the book to doctors and nurses at Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) today, president of the Maldivian Medical Association Dr Azeez Yoosuf noted that while Male’s roads caused more injuries than the country’s waters, “there is a lot of inappropriate treatment of injuries caused by marine creatures.”

“We come across island hospitals where wounds caused by sting rays have been nicely stitched up, but because of the toxins the wound becomes necrotic. It’s better to keep the wound open, but the tendency is to stitch it,” he explains.

Surgeon fish injuries were surprisingly common, he added. “You can safely swim through a school of surgeon fish. But curious tourists sometimes try to pat them and get a big cut on their hand, which can become a problem because the [tail] can be covered in a lot of slime.”

As for the tremendously poisonous stonefish, “we don’t have the anti-venom, it’s only available in Australia. We just treat the pain.”

Despite their fearsome reputation, shark attacks were very rare, he said.

“The only shark bite I’ve seen was on someone who caught one and tried to get the fishhook out by putting his hand in the [live] shark’s mouth.”

The traditional treatment for jellyfish stings, he noted, was “hot urine or alcohol.”

Inspired by a jellyfish sting
Inspired by a jellyfish sting

“Dangerous Marine Animals – Biology, Injuries & Medical Treatment” (Kikinger, Lindner, Wiesbauer-Ali 2009) is printed and published in the Maldives and is available directly from the publisher Atoll Images, Ma. Shah, Dhidhi Goalhi, Male’ (3341643).

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UNDP pumps $9.3 million into climate change adaptation

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has begun recruiting staff for a $9.3 million climate change adaption project in conjunction with the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Transport.

The UNDP’s “vision” was to have “a community enabled deal which addresses climate change impact,” said Mohamed Inaz, the UNDP’s assistant resident representative of environment and energy.

“Currently the ministry is in the process of recruiting. They need project staff who can address and implement the different issues,” he said.

The four year project, which was signed early in December and will run until March 2014, is intended to  “integrate climate change risks into resilient island planning in the Maldives”. The project is the result was the result of a national adaptation program of action (NAPA) study completed in 2008, which attempted to identify activities that would assist a country to adapt to climate change.

According to the UNDP, the main focus of this project was to integrate climate change risk into sustainable human development and reduce the country’s vulnerability.

“We want risk assessment across all areas such as land use planning and decentralisation, and we also want to improve the meteorological service to provide more up-to-date data specific to the Maldives,” Inaz said.

While the ministry will implement the project, the UNDP noted that it would be closely monitored.

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Lease to conserve?

Blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, Gnaviyani atoll Fuvamulah is also geographically unique; an atoll and an island at the same time.

One of the major attractions of the island are the two kulhi (freshwater lakes). The smaller Dhandigamu Kulhi is often used by the locals to go swimming, but Bandara Kulhi has fared worse, degrading to such an extent that few now venture near it.

“It’s almost a garbage site now, a dump site. There’s is no one to look after the place,” says Hassan Saeed, the atoll councillor.

Nevertheless Bandara Kulhi remains one of the most serene and beautiful locations on the island. Stretching across 274 meters, access to it is via marshlands and narrow paths near taro fields.

Islanders used a built a jetty off the main road seven years ago to gain access to it, however neglect has caused it to crumble to the point of being unsafe.

A novel idea

Locals enjoying
Locals enjoying

In order to reverse the damage and reopen the kulhi, a novel but controversial idea has been floated.

“We recently had [a visit from] a survey team from the ministry of fisheries and agriculture, and the report they submitted advised us that a way to generate the budget to take care of the kulhi could be to commercially commodify it,” Saeed says.

Details are sketchy: “We are just sending out feelers right now, we will consult with the agricultural ministry as well as the environmental ministry, find out which criteria we have to set, and then invite proposals,” he says.

Leasing out the land for farming or a restaurant are some of the ideas. The party who winning the lease would be entrusted the task of making sure no waste is dumped in the wetland in the area, while the money would be used to protect and maintain the kulhi.

Some are apprehensive about the idea.

“We heard about this but I’m not sure how far they have gone with the idea,” says Abdul Azeez Ismail, chairman of NGO Fuvamulah Association of Developing Infrastructure (FADI) and a member of the society for environmental awareness.

Ismail is of the opinion that leasing the land to just anybody will lead to further destruction of the place. He has reservations about opening the area to just local tourism and believes a resort should be involved

“South province state minister Mohamed Naseer once mentioned it. There are resorts in Addu and Huvadhoo Atoll, so opening it to international tourists shouldn’t be a problem,” he says, adding that mostly it is only resorts that have the capacity to care and protect the environment.

“Fuvamulah is different to other islands. So much can be done here, and the kulhi is a gift to us from nature so we have to conserve it,” he says.

Bandara Kulhi (freshwater lake): a rare sight in the tiny islands of the Maldives
Bandara Kulhi (freshwater lake): a rare sight in the tiny islands of the Maldives

Beneficial or destructive?

Islander Hassan Mohamed, 68, says “better to lease out if it could be beneficial to the islanders.”

He recalls that in the past during the governments of Mohamed Amin and Ibrahim Nasir, the kulhi was leased out: “It was well maintained at that time. There were banana plantations nearby, weeds were cut, and surroundings were kept clean.”

During Amin Didi’s time coconut husks were lowered into the kulhi, after which it was used to make choir ropes that were sold. In Nasir’s time the leasee cultivated milkfish and whenever fish was scarce they sold it to the general populace.

“In recent years nothing has been done and the place is being destroyed,” Hassan says.

Most islanders seem to agree with him.

“If done properly leasing out the kulhi area would be good,” says 32 year-old Masitha Ahmed.

Executive director of NGO Blue Peace, Ali Rilwan, says everything depends on how much the place will be altered if it were leased.

“How much mangrove will be cut? Will it be only the bank of the kulhi that is going to be leased?” he asks.

Internationally Rilwan claims it is the norm to conserve some areas as strict nature reserves, while others are regulated to ensure nature and human activities can co-exist.

“There are nature parks that are leased to private parties to protect,” he explains. However he reserves his final judgment for “when we see an environmental assessment report. Then we can talk about the merits or demerits.”

Saeed sums the argument for leasing the area. “Is it better to let the area get destroyed? Or commodify the place in order to look after it responsibly?”

Photos by Ahmed Thaumeen.

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European Commission hands Maldives €6.5 million for climate adaption

The European Commission has pledged €6.5 million (US$9.36 million) to help the Maldives adapt to the effects of climate change and mitigate the impact, and provide technical support.

The new Climate Change Trust Fund will be administered by the World Bank in a deal cemented between President Mohamed Nasheed and World Bank President Robert Zoellick at Copenhagen.

“The European Commission has given the money to the World Bank and asked them to manage it,” noted Minister for the Environment, Mohamed Aslam. “I believe the contract is already signed and the World Bank office in Sri Lanka informed me they were receiving it by courier today.”

The money was not part of the US$30 billion pledged at Copenhagen by developed nations to help developing countries adjust to climate change, Aslam emphasised, and was the fruition of an ongoing program “long before the [Copenhagen] accord.”

“We just happen to be the first country receiving this money,” he said.

While the money was not enough to begin tackling the problems facing the capital, he said, it would make a difference to coastal protection and “soft engineering” projects to help smaller islands suffering severe beach erosion.

“We will also invest it in developing sewerage and water systems on islands,” he said, adding the government had yet to decide which islands to help.

Food security was another priority for the money, Aslam said, and an issue that affected the entire country regardless of geographic location.

“It’s more about trying to find a climate-sound method of agriculture for the country,” he said.

A delegation from the World Bank will arrive in the Maldives in January to meet with the government and discuss how the money should be spent.

“Adapting to climate change will cost a lot more than €6.5 million,” Aslam noted, estimating the figure was more in the realm of US$4.6 billion.

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‘Survival is not negotiable’: youth climate ambassador

The youth climate ambassador to the Maldives is not happy with the Copenhagen accord.

“World leaders should be role models and should have worked harder to reach a legally binding accord,” says 15 year-old Mohamed Axam Maumoon, who returned to the Maldives last week after meeting world leaders at the COP 15, including Danish Prime Minister Lars Loeke Rasmussen.

“I stressed the point about finance,” Axam recalls. “Money should not be considered an important factor when talking about survival, because survival is not negotiable; everyone has a right to live.”

Selected from the international ranks of the youth climate ambassadors, Axam was given the opportunity to ascend the podium and present the Maldives’ case to the world during the early days of the COP15 last week.

“I had given speeches before and I was trying to feel same way as before so I’d be comfortable, blocking out the media and looking at people directly,” he says. “Afterwards, I was thrilled when everyone stood up to clap, and I handed our declaration to the Danish Prime Minister.”

“I hope I moved people in some way by what I had to say about the sad state of the Maldives,” he says. “When people hear these things from children it makes a big difference because it is more emotional – I don’t believe I spoke to enough people.”

Children, he argued at the summit, have “not been considered” in the climate change debate.

“Youth were mentioned once in Kyoto,” he says. “I said: ‘How old are you going to be in 2050? You might not still be here, but it’s your children who are going to suffer because of your actions now.'”

World leaders were unwilling to take political risks regarding the environment, Axam speculates, because the populations they represented were not yet aware enough of the issues at stake.

“Like a CEO accountable to shareholders, a democratically-elected politician has to care what people think of them. But taking risks isn’t fashionable, and people don’t like to sacrifice for the greater good.”

If politicians were accountable to their populace, then one solution was to “create awareness in citizens.”

“When I was interviewing people [in the Maldives] 90% didn’t know what carbon neutrality means,” he says.

“The Maldives has pledged to become carbon neutral in the next 10 years – people need to understand what it means when their energy switches over to wind power.”

As a small nation of only 360,000 people, the Maldives is ideally placed to become “a showcase country” for the rest of the world, Axam argues.

“We can effectively work together in a way we couldn’t if we were four million,” he says.

The youth climate ambassadors can help keep up the momentum, he proposed, by setting up “a chain” of ambassadors across the islands and atolls who could increase people’s awareness of environmental issues and interest in the natural world.

As for his own plans, Axam says he is now reviewing his original plan to become a pilot.

“I was studying physics and science and all of that, but since the issue of climate change has popped into my life I’ve started studying biology and now it’s my favourite subject of all.”

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Copenhagen a victory for the Maldives, says President

The Maldives will benefit from short-term funding for island and developing nations pledged at the The UN’s Climate Change Forum in Copenhagen, President Mohamed Nasheed told a press conference on his return home, even if the accord itself was not as comprehensive as hoped.

Ten per cent of the $30 billion in short-term funding would go towards helping small island nations adapt, he said.

“The talks were a success for the Maldives as funds were pledged for adaptation. We will get the money we need,” Nasheed said, adding that the challenge now was to improve the country’s capacity to undertake such large projects.

“I can say now with confidence that we will provide water, sanitation, electricity and build harbours in all islands. The only question is when can we do it? That depends on how fast we can work,” he said. “God willing, we will not face difficulties with money now.”

In addition, the Maldives’ high profile on the world stage now meant it can go straight to important world leaders, Nasheed said.

“A lot of people were depending on us, so I think if we need something and ask for it, now it will be easier to get it done.”

Nasheed drew praise from many world leaders, including Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, for his sustained negotiations with stubborn countries. Such mediation was necessary, Nasheed explained, due to a “deep mistrust” between developing and developed countries.

Six countries, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Tuvalu opposed the accord.

Nasheed said he talked with the Tuvalu prime minister and the Cuban negotiator and convinced them to sign. “I pleaded with the Nicaraguan president. The Saudis stepped aside when the Americans asked them to…the Venezuelan official refused to speak to me. Just refused to speak at all.”

Others were friendlier. Nasheed was given a lift back to the conference centre by Rudd after a BBC debate, chatted with UK billionaire Richard Branson, and even had to cancel a meeting with former US presidential candidate and environmental advocate Al Gore due to a double-booking. “The World Bank president (Robert Zoellick) called constantly up to the last minute,” Nasheed added.

The cost of the trip was covered by other countries, while the ongoing publicity benefits would be considerable, he added.

“We spend US$1 million on tourism promotion. Even if we had spent billions I’m certain we wouldn’t have got the same degree of coverage as we have over the past two or three weeks across the world on newspapers and TV.”

The accord itself “was a good beginning”, and a far better outcome than failure, he noted.

“If we had been unable to get this, everything would have failed. We were working in an environment of fear that could have caused serious conflicts among nations,” he said. “If no accord had been reached, the status of the UN would have been in jeopardy while some European leaders would have been unable to go back to their people.”

Nasheed said he viewed the final accord as a framework with “many promising features that could become legally binding.”

“A decision will be made on lowering the limit from 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees celsius based on the advice and counsel of the Inter-government Panel on Climate Change in 2015,” he explained.

“The science says the world really has seven years to make a decision. If something is not done in seven years, climate change will go beyond our control or reach a tipping point.”

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Tepid response to Copenhagen accord, but a win for the Maldives

The Danish Prime Minister has called Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed “the real hero of Copenhagen” following a marathon 30 hour negotiation session, however global response to the final accord is proving underwhelming.

Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen told a press conference that intense pressure from the Maldives reignited the debate when it threatened to stall. When talks broke down, Nasheed appealed to argumentative nations “to leave pride aside and adopt this accord for the sake of our grandchildren.”

The Maldivian president joined world leaders including Barack Obama (US), Gordon Brown (UK), Nicholas Sarkozy (France) and Angela Merkel (Germany) in drawing up the Copenhagen Accord, which was then adopted by more than 150 countries following fiery debate.

The accord recognises that global temperatures should rise no higher than two degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels, but does not commit developed countries to legally-binding emission reduction targets.

The flavour of the talks revealed that sovergnity and development remain a higher priority than climate change for many large growing economies. China was particularly irritable on the subject: Prime Minister Wen Jiabao stormed out of the conference after disagreements with the US over international monitoring.

“This was our sovereignty and our national interest [at stake],” said the head of China’s delegation, Xie Zhenhua, before sending a low-ranking protocol officer to resume negotiations with Obama.

China’s revised agreement, which was backed by many large developing nations including Brazil and India, commits to a two degree limit but does not force cuts on any country.

Meanwhile Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping caused carnage when he stood up and described the final accord as “a solution based on the same very values that piled six million people into furnaces in Europe”.

The most tangible success was an agreement to deliver US$30 billion in short-term funding to developing countries over a three year period, in an effort to help them adapt to climate change and adopt clean energy technologies.

“Small island developing states” were highlighted in the agreement as potential beneficiaries of this money, which included US$10.6 billion pledged by the European Union, US$11 billion from Japan, and US$3.6 billion from the United States.

It appeared there would also be more to come: the accord promised the developing world an annual US$100 billion by 2020 to aid ‘clean’ development, drawn from public and private sources.

“The world stood at the abyss last night but this morning we took a step back,” President Nasheed said, following yesterday’s negotiations.

“The Copenhagen Accord is a long way from perfect. But it is a step in the right direction. We did our best to accommodate all parties, we tried to bridge the wide gulf between different countries, and in the end we were able to reach a compromise,” he said.

However the two degree temperature limit fell short of his expectations: “To save our country from climate change, we need an agreement that limits temperature rises to 1.5 degrees and reduces atmospheric carbon concentrations to 350 parts per million,” Nasheed said.

“While this accord does not deliver these targets there is room within the agreement to migrate toward 1.5 degrees and 350 parts per million, pending scientific assessments.”

Response

Media response to the accord was rather tepid, while some campaigners have called it “a disaster.”

In the UK, the Guardian described the final two page agreement as “vaguely worded, short on detail and not legally binding,” while the Times blasted it as “lukewarm” and “meaningless”.

Al Jazeera reported that the deal had left “only bitterness and anger at the deal done between the US and the world’s emerging economies”, while the Wall Street Journal observed that the final wording of the accord and a lack of formal approval “means countries are left with the choice of associating with the agreement or not.”

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Coral spawning creates red sea in Addu

Spawning coral have turned patches of ocean pinkish red around Villingili island on Addu atoll, in photos released by the Shangri-La resort’s Eco Centre.

Manager of the Eco Centre Estelle Davies said the phenomenon was very interesting because the coral were spawning in December according to southern hemisphere patterns.

“The only documented coral spawning in the Maldives is during March and April, which I believe is synchronous with northern hemisphere timing,” Estelle explained. “So even though Addu is part of the Maldives, true to its position, it seems to be following the Southern Hemisphere spawning [patterns].”

Estelle said islanders in the area had described similarly coloured water in previous years, but had been unsure what it was.

“You should have heard some of the rumours – people thought it was red paint, or someone killing fish,” she said. “It certainly smelt of living animal, which of course is what coral is.”

Microscope analysis suggested the coral spawn was only one or two species, she said: “I was expecting far more – there’s over 200 species here. I suspect acropora, porites or montipora as the eggs were less than a mm in diameter.”

Coral was often mistaken for a plant when it was really an animal, Estelle explained, that reproduces both sexually and asexually.

“Some species are hermaphrodites and release an egg already fertilised ” she said.

Estelle said she hoped pilots flying through the area would report any red streaks they saw across the ocean.

“I think pilots are the most likely to see evidence of this happening,” she said.

Anyone who spots a similar occurance in the region can contact the Shangri-La’s Eco Centre at [email protected]

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Maldives President fires up rally at Copenhagen

President Mohamed Nasheed galvanised thousands of environmentalists at a 350.org rally in Copenhagen yesterday, vowing to persevere until a politically binding climate change treaty was attained.

“I refuse to believe that a better world isn’t possible,” said 42-year-old Nasheed at Klimaforum, the global civil society counterpart of the official UN conference.

“I have three words to say to the doubters and deniers. Three words with which to win this battle. Just three words are all I need. You may already have heard them. Three-Five-Oh,” he said.

World leaders will meet in the Danish capital this week at the historic UN climate change conference to thrash out a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

But, the two years of negotiations have reached a virtual impasse as the developed and developing world remain at loggerheads over who should shoulder the lion’s share of emissions cuts.

Over on 350.org, Bill McKibben, the man behind the campaign, wrote that Nasheed was the first head of state to arrive in Copenhagen and “he drove the crowd into a frenzy…with a thousand people on their feet chanting ‘3-5-0’”.

The 350 campaign is lobbying for cuts in atmospheric carbon to the safe levels of 350ppm, a figure cited by James Hansen, the head of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Current levels stand at around 387ppm.

In October, Nasheed demonstrated his commitment to the campaign by diving into a lagoon with 11 of his ministers to hold the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting.

The laws of physics, said Nasheed, could not be argued with. “You cannot cut a deal with Mother Nature, and we don’t intend to try. That is why, in March, the Maldives announced plans to become the first carbon neutral country in the world.”

In March, the president unveiled plans to make the Indian Ocean archipelago carbon neutral within a decade by switching to 100 per cent renewable energy and offsetting aviation pollution, primarily generated by tourists flying to one of the country’s luxury resorts.

Addressing yesterday’s rally, Nasheed said going carbon neutral was not simply a question of taking the moral high ground but was also economically prudent.

“Countries that have the foresight to green their economies today,will be the winners of tomorrow,” he said. “These pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil. They will capitalise on the new, green economy of the future.”

Looking back over history as well as his own experience, Nasheed said he believed in the power of peaceful protest.

“From the civil rights movement, to Gandhi’s Quit India campaign; non-violent protest can create change. Protest worked in the struggle for democracy in the Maldives,” he said.

Last year, Nasheed, the leader of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party unseated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the country’s first democratic elections. A former journalist, Nasheed was jailed by the former regime for his political writings on numerous occasions.

Recounting this period, he said, “We sat in those cells because we had deliberately broken the unjust laws of dictatorship. We had spoken out for a cause in which we believed. That cause was freedom and democracy.”

While the former government had “guns, bombs and tanks”, the opposition only had the “power of our words, and the moral clarity of our cause.”

“My message to you is to continue the protests. Continue after Copenhagen. Continue despite the odds. And eventually, together, we will reached that crucial number: Three-five-oh,” he said.

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