In the first part of a special report from the island of Fares-Maathoda, Minivan News looks at the challenges for communities developing beyond Male’s glance as they attempt to switch to decentralised governance and overcome their natural vulnerabilities.
If the rate of development in the Maldives could be measured in the availability of Lavazza-branded espresso, then the conjoined islands of Fares-Maathoda in the Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, while offering a very warm welcome, remain an instant coffee type-of-place.
With its sparsely populated community estimated at about 1000 people, the island is dense with jungle vegetation that rests alongside inhabited and incomplete homes, while crabs on the beach nestle between piles of coconut husk, used food wrapping and milk cartons amidst views of an apparently endless blue horizon.
The relatively unique geography of the islands could be said to reflect a wealth of challenges facing the wider country regarding waste management, coastal protection and economic development.
Since being formed back in the 1990’s via reclaimed land over a shallow passage of water linking the two islands in an attempt to create a small craft harbour for its residents, the UN has cited concerns from Fares-Maathoda’s residents that flooding has been made worse and far more frequent as a result.
While the islands may not specifically serve as a microcosm for the nation’s delicate beauty and democratic reform process, UN Resident Coordinator Andrew Cox said he believed that Fares-Maathoda was very typical in reflecting the Maldives’ vulnerability to natural elements as well as the development needs of its people.
“This counts as a vulnerable island; vulnerable economically and all the other issues that come along with that,” he said. “People make their money off fishing here and there are not a lot of other options or a strong tourism industry in the area. So you don’t get people earning money and bringing income in that way. One of the things that research shows is that islands or communities do very well if their livelihoods are good and if they are well organised.”
Since coming to power, President Mohamed Nasheed has garnered huge international coverage, as well as foreign accolades for his attempts in trying to champion the Maldives as a small nation working towards becoming a fully sustainable economy. Yet at island level, how are these commitments being seen?
Cox added that the time had perhaps come for government to be more inward looking by opening up national debate and understanding of what climate change could mean for the Maldives on an everyday basis.
“The president has been exceptional at selling climate change issues to the world. Yet I think the Maldives will benefit at every level through a basic of understanding what [climate change] is going to mean for the country and how it is that decisions are going to be made in the future about what are the best chances for economic growth. Where is it that people are going to be living? How are they going to be living?” he said. “All these things I think could be and must be fleshed out. I think it could be a very interesting national dialogue to have. There has been a certain amount already, but this about the future in the Maldives.”
Cox himself, along with representatives from the Ministry of Finance and Treasury, the Ministry of Housing and Environment, the National Office and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) visited Fares-Maathoda on April 12 to meet with local councilors, and outline how Danish donor aid for funding climate change adaptation would be allocated on the island.
The allocated funding, which totals 5 million Danish Krone (Rf12 million) will be put into a scheme to support a wider number of future development projects targeted at offsetting the potential impacts on the country from climate change and rising sea levels. On Fares-Mathooda, some of the funds are being set aside for drainage and waste management projects.
Beyond president Nasheed’s international sustainability pledges, positioned on the other side of the country, and indeed the political spectrum, Fares-Mathooda, which elected five councillors into power from the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) in February’s local council elections, claims to have a great need for assistance in reducing its vulnerability to the sea and the elements.
Speaking to Minivan News, councillor Hussain Rasheed claimed that aside from the long-term threats of rising seas and freak natural disasters such as the 2004 Asian Tsunami, seasonal occurrences such as high tides were proving to be problematic for the island’s development.
The low-lying nature of the island had meant that storms and tidal swells were major problems for residents on the Fares side of the island, whom had in the past been forced to vacate to the Mathooda side for safety in certain circumstances.
“This is a very big problem, for instance, many people suffered psychologically when there was a tidal wave, and with many people affected, we needed a lot of assistance to relieve this suffering,” he said.
An engineer present at the meeting, as one of the bidders hoping to work on the climate change adaption projects for Fares-Mathooda, claimed that the low-lying geography of the island meant that waves of even a metre in height posed a huge flooding risk. The engineer added that the problem was made worse by the reclaimed land between the two formerly separate islands that had since been combined physically and administratively, limiting natural drainage options for water building up on the land.
In trying to address these concerns, Andrew Cox said that it was vital to focus on the specific vulnerabilities facing a community, island or an entire atoll in the case of the Maldives, rather than solely looking at large scale energy investments in a bid to provide national solutions to environmental and coastal management.
“What is it that people need? That is the bottom line,” he said. “People have been talking about climate change for a long-time, but it has been mostly focused around international negotiations to try and reverse carbon into the atmosphere. But so far there has not been an international deal,” he said.
Cox added that this failure for international agreement still hadn’t dampened interest from politicians, donors and NGOs in being seen to be “doing something” about climate change around the world.
“The big question that I think the Maldives can answer about climate adaption is, how do you do that? In real life what do these changes mean?” he asked.
According to Cox, like almost every other nation in the world, the Maldives does not have any large-scale examples of climate change programmes, but rather a great deal of smaller pilot projects designed to try and limit potential vulnerability to environmental changes. This he said, was often seen in a variety of areas such as water or waste management.
The UN representative said these smaller projects might be present on a number of islands in the form of different waste management projects that resulted in various levels of success.
“The central concept that we need to talk about and agree, is what happens when you bring all these things related to climate change together in one place? How do you make a material change in the vulnerability of one atoll?” he asked. “Even an atoll is too small, because the Maldives doesn’t have that much time, but you have to start somewhere. You take an atoll and see what it needs as a whole to get from point X on the vulnerability scale to point Y, which is hopefully above the minimum level of security.”
Just as important though, according to the UN Representative, would be the country’s attempts to overcome poverty through economic development measures, reducing a country’s vulnerability beyond investing in infrastructure alone.
“This is a concept that makes a lot of sense, but it hasn’t been done. The exciting thing for the Maldives is if you can go down that path, you can show donors the way. This will hopefully benefit the Maldives as well as international projects as well,” he said.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean all the answers will be here, but a lot of them might be.”