The Maldives: a country in crisis or composure?

To quote William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’ Dream, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”. Whilst perhaps not being the intended comparison it undoubtedly rings true of the Maldives.  Despite having a population smaller than Glasgow, the country has emerged and proved itself as a major actor and influencer on the global environmental stage. It champions causes, challenges countries and effectuates change.

The Republic of the Maldives consists of an archipelago of over a thousand islands situated in the Indian Ocean. Famously known for its idyllic beaches, crystal clear waters, and peaceful nature, the country and its economy rely wholeheartedly on the global tourist industry, with great success. Tourism accounts for more than 28% of GDP and 60% of foreign exchange. However, the country faces a perilous future. The vast majority of the country’s islands lie at little above sea level – and with the rising sea levels attributed to global warming, full island submergence is a very real threat for the country. According to the World Bank, with “future sea levels projected to increase in the range of 10 to 100 centimetres by the year 2100, the entire country could be submerged”.

Unfortunately, however, the Maldives finds itself in a catch-22 situation. In order to stop its populations, animals and environment from being decimated due to the effects of climate change, the Maldives needs to, quite literally, strengthen its borders. It needs to invest in infrastructure, very expensive infrastructure.  The harsh reality is that if the country has any hope of raising and sustaining an income to finance the funds for this environmental infrastructure, they rely on their tourist industry. The very tourist industry that sees people arrive in polluting aeroplanes, diesel boats, and environment destroying transport. These transport forms are the very things that contribute to global warming, melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Ironically, the issue of climate is funding the reaction to it. Whilst the Maldives has found a very short-term reactionary solution, this approach has little to no longevity. But how does the country go about changing this without destroying their whole economy? They can’t fund their climate action and infrastructure without tourism, and they need to address climate issues, in part, due to the levels of tourism they receive.

The Republic of Maldives faces yet more bad news. For the first time in Westphalian history, there is a very real threat that a state – The Maldives – will face a reduction of its territory and sovereign borders, due to physical erosion. This is a novel event for the global community, and indeed the international order. State sovereignty has, in modern times, been the driving force underpinning the independence of countries. However, the effects of climate change, and more specifically, rising sea levels, threaten to challenge this. Resultantly, the issues facing the Maldives extend beyond being environmental in nature. The very idea of national sovereignty, which has been inherent to the international functioning since the 1648 signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, needs to be rethought. It needs to be redefined in order to take into account the effects of climate change: a changing climate poses questions of inherent statehood and territorial bounds.

Whilst all seeming rather bleak for the picturesque country, it’s not all doom and gloom. Despite its small size, the Maldives have been fighting the battle of climate change, in a bid to save its borders from, quite literally, disappearing. The country emerged as a key actor on the environmental stage during a 2018 United Nation meeting, during which it called on all nations to put their differences aside in the collective fight for our planet.   

Championing climate policy and environmental action are not new for the small, but influential nation. Former Prime Minister, Mohamed Nasheed famously held a cabinet meeting underwater to draw attention to submerging land and global warming a decade ago. Whilst it was a very good way to raise awareness, the Maldives’ action also goes beyond superficial stunts. It is an active and key member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a non-governmental organization that promotes the interests of small nations on the global stage. The Maldives provides a voice for vulnerable countries and their often-marginalised populations. In terms of size, AOSIS closely resembles the countries it represents on the global stage, but often punches far above its weight, negotiating historic global commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental targets. The Maldives have proved themselves to be an example to just about every other country in the world in terms of their climate action.

With the previously delayed, but now upcoming Cop26 climate summit due to be held in Glasgow in November 2021, small island states, such as the Maldives, will be able to bring the issues they face to the foreground of international concern. The Maldives will be a champion of the issue and will be able to raise awareness for not only itself but for small island nations at risk all over the world. The Maldives are providing a voice for the voiceless, despite its own precarious position.

Image credit: Aishath Naj via UnSplash

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