Story: The Maldives is the stuff of dreams, picture-perfect with palm-fringed sandy beaches, luxurious resorts and coral reefs teeming with exotic fish. Or at least this is the perception most of us share.
I am not a seeker of luxury, nor am I a good swimmer. Yet, since learning that the archipelago – which rests just 1.5m above sea level – may disappear within our lifetime, I have been captivated by the islands.
Resorts here occupy their own, isolated island, rendering most guests marooned; they never meet locals other than the hotel staff. It makes it all too easy to forget that this famed tourist destination is a place that people call home. Yet Maldivians are fiercely attached to their island paradise – and who could blame them?
There are over 1,000 islands in the archipelago, grouped in 22 atolls composed of live coral reefs situated atop a submarine ridge that stretches over 1,000km. Most islands remain uninhabited, while 30 per cent of the 400,000 inhabitants live in the capital, Male.
Tourism aside, fishing is the Maldives’ main industry; coconut-timbered dhoni boats populate the shores. Indeed, the coconut tree is another keystone of survival here. Story has it that, on a desert island, one person needs just two coconut trees to survive. Its fruit provides food; leaves serve as shelter; the fibre from the husk can make good rope; the timber can be used to construct boats; empty shells make nice bowls.
The coconut tree echoes Maldivians’ resourcefulness. Yet today their survival is facing new challenges. Global warming is causing ocean levels to rise, threatening to swallow the islands. Rising temperatures are accelerating coral bleaching and the death of the reef. Islanders have been aware of the precarious condition of their country for some time and its governments are making both environmental assurances and preparations for possible evacuation. Unfortunately, without worldwide cooperation, the future of the islands looks bleak.
Plastic is among the main threats to Maldavian life. Of the tonnes washed ashore each day, only a small portion originates locally; most has travelled long distances across the ocean. It’s a sinister reminder of the downfalls of the old adage “out of sight, out of mind” – the plastic we produce doesn’t simply disappear. This magical paradise needs protection and that remains the responsibility of all of us, not just those who live there.