“We will live on stilts, if necessary”

an interview with Hussain Rasheed Hassan

Someone else's paradise (Issue IV/2019)

Mr. Hassan, most of the approximately 1,200 Maldivian islands lie only just over two metres above sea level. If the water continues to rise due to climate change, large parts of the country could be flooded. How acute do you think this threat is?

It is a concern, but not the number one concern. Surely, global warming currently poses the biggest security threat to our country. But while many people think that this is mostly due to the projected sea level rise, our biggest problem right now is coral bleaching. If the global average temperature really rises by two degrees until 2030, then around 60 to 90 percent of the coral reefs in the Maldives will be degraded. We already witnessed such coral bleaching in the past, but usually the corals recovered in a phase where the water cooled. Now the water is getting so hot that it is virtually boiling for the corals and they die off permanently. That is a major issue. It is believed that without corals the Maldives would never have existed: They grew on the underwater mountain ridges and formed reefs which collected sand, which then formed sandbanks. Today, many of the bigger reefs also function as natural wave-breakers. They absorb the energy of large waves underwater before those waves hit the beaches. So, if the corals die, there will be no more protection for many of our islands.

Does your ministry have contingency plans for such a scenario?

Surely, there are a number of theoretical emergency solutions, for example, building rock boulder walls around islands like Malé. However, with a cost of around 8.000 US-Dollars for one meter of wall that is not a realistic option for us, since hundreds of islands would need to be protected that way. In fact, we are not planning for a doomsday scenario. We are not considering moving large parts of our population to a distant land, we are not thinking about moving people to different islands – as was considered by the former government – and we are not thinking about becoming climate refugees. There’s just no way in our minds that we will become a modern-day Atlantis, about which people can only read in books in the future. Rather, we are focusing all of our energy on communicating our situation to the rest of the world and making sure that everything is being done to combat climate change. Because in my opinion, it is not only the Maldivians that need to care about the future of our nation, but it is also the responsibility of the global community to ensure that the Maldives exist in the future. Our atolls are a natural asset that need international protection.

How do you want to go about that? As a nation of 530,000 people, the Maldives don’t seem to have much leverage on the international stage…

Whenever we get a chance to express our concern over man-made climate change and our situation, we do so. When we visited the last United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice in 2018, our representatives vetoed the first draft of the resolution that was about to be passed and went straight to the Polish Presidency to voice our opposition. We felt that the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees had not been taken seriously enough by the bigger players and also that our position as an island nation had not been sufficiently heard. We said that they either needed to revise the draft or we would jump on our tables and stop the proceedings – and it worked. In order to gain leverage, we have also long been teaming up with other low-lying costal and small island countries that are particularly affected by the effects of climate change. In the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) we are coordinating our efforts with nations like Haiti, Singapore and Fiji. That is one way of getting more political traction. In the end, however, we also need to count on more powerful allies, like many European nations – for example Germany – who have in the recent past been very sympathetic to our cause.

Sometimes it is not enough to be sympathetic to the cause. Do you feel that the major global player take climate change and its potential effects on island nations like the Maldives seriously enough?

Of course, we have seen that many industrialised countries are failing their commitments related to climate change and do not see a big impetus to act. And we are also noting scepticism in countries like the United States about the phenomenon of man-made climate change in general. But honestly, we cannot waste our time thinking about that. Whereas many other countries around the world still have the luxury of discussing the theoretical implications of climate change, we are already witnessing those implications first hand. Yes, it is a reality that the 44 countries of AOSIS are accounting for less than one percent of global carbon emissions, but simultaneously suffer the most from the consequences of climate change. But we cannot complain and we need to also clean up our own act. Currently, for example, as much as 96 percent of the energy on the Maldives is produced by burning fossil fuels. My goal is to turn that around and create a solar energy industry here on the Maldives that can cover up to 70 percent of our nation’s energy needs by 2030. Instead of just pointing fingers, we need to lead by example.

The former Maldivian administrations have not always succeeded in that. Over the past years, for example, the Maldives has fought climate change and environmental degradation on the global level, but the issue of waste has become a big problem on the islands…

That’s true. Sadly, if I may stay in the picture, we have inherited a lot of waste from our predecessors. The former administrations have not been focusing on ecological policies within the country at all and therefore issues like waste management have become very pressing. Even though single-use plastic has been a major problem in the Maldives for years, not much has been done about it. Today, there are already big accumulations of waste floating along the outer islands, mostly consisting of things like plastic and scrap metal. I am planning to counter this by creating a program that provides large water containers to households, so as to stop people from using small PET bottles. And the ministry is also setting up a program to remove waste from the outer islands and the ocean. But as with many other topics, the greatest lack that we face in the Maldives is a lack of space. There is simply no room for landfills. So where do we bring the waste once we pick it up? Therefore, we are both working on recycling programs for degradable waste and on potential waste exporting schemes to third countries for non-degradable materials.

Coral bleaching, rising sea levels, piles of plastic waste: Are you worried that these issues will have a lasting impact on the Maldives as a travel destination? After all, around 70 percent of the national income is generated by international tourism.

It sounds very pragmatic to think of it that way, but that danger is very real for the Maldives. You see, the Maldives don’t have any mineral resources like oil or gold or iron. What we possess are beautiful islands, white sandy beaches, crystal clear lagoons, exotic specimen of fish, turtles, sharks and rays. Nature is our resource. When all of that is gone, nobody will come here anymore. So when we talk about the ecological degradation of the Maldives, we are also talking about the economic destruction of the Maldivian economy. I’m am very certain, however, that in twenty years from now, we Maldivians will still be here, no matter what. After all, we are the sons and daughters of travellers and seafarers. We are dynamic and we won’t leave our homes. We will build our homes on stilts, if necessary.

an interview by Kai Schnier

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