Averting catastrophe

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans

Averting catastrophe


The Maldives

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the world's oceans could rise by about 95 centimetres by the year 2100. For settlements at high altitudes, this might go unnoticed. But it is an alarming prospect for many low-lying regions of the planet, in both large and small states. What is more, sea-level rise is not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a wider process of climate change that will have pervasive effects on all the people who inhabit the Earth.

Low-lying regions of the world are frequently fertile, densely populated and invested with expensive infrastructure. Therefore, sea-level rise by even 1 metre will lead to astronomical human and material costs. For example, it could affect over 70 million people in coastal China, and displace up to 10 per cent of the population of Egypt and 60 per cent of the population of Bangladesh. The wealthier nations would suffer, too. Over 60 per cent of the people of The Netherlands could be affected, and 15 per cent of the people and 50 per cent of the industry of Japan would be threatened. In the United States of America, 17,000 square kilometres of wetlands, and the same amount of dry land, could be lost. In low-lying states like the Maldives or the Marshall Islands, the entire population would be at risk.

Facing reality

The islands of the Maldives rise, on average, only up to 1 metre above sea level. In 1987 and 1991, storm surges flooded a large number of islands, including one-third of the capital where one-quarter of the country's population lives. Unusually high waves forced the international airport to be closed, causing great damage to tourism and constraining emergency relief operations. Recent surveys have shown that almost one-third of the 200 inhabited islands are faced with serious beach erosion problems.

Sea-level rise is not a fashionable scientific hypothesis but a fact. Already this century, the seas have risen by between 10 and 25 centimetres. The prevailing scientific consensus holds that human action, affecting the world climate, would cause the seas to rise more rapidly in future.

States need to pursue immediate measures in three broad categories: relocating away from areas of risk, adapting to sea-level rise, and taking protective measures to prevent inundation. For many small states, mostly island ones, relocation is not possible. Mitigation and defensive measures are prohibitively expensive, at an average cost of about 2 per cent of gross national product per annum: considerable external assistance would be needed to enable small states to pursue alleviation and defensive strategies.

Addressing the cause

A sustainable response must be long-term and it must address the root cause. Sea levels rise due to the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of polar ice, as just one consequence of the ecological degradation that leads to global warming. Other aspects of climate change, such as extreme weather events, would compound the threat. Other effects could include increased coastal erosion; added salinity of estuaries and freshwater aquifers; altered tidal ranges and current patterns; and changes in the chemical and microbiological states of coastal waters. Crops would fail, causing famine, and new diseases could spread worldwide.

Global warming is a result of the increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases. The primary cause of this is the overwhelming dependence of the world economy on fossil fuels. Industrialization, urbanization and rapid population growth have increased the world's energy demand, met primarily by burning fossil fuels, and, at the same time, deforestation has diminished the Earth's natural ability to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2. The long-term solution, therefore, would be to stop the process of global warming and to reduce ecological degradation. This would naturally require a global partnership in taking effective and urgent action. As yet, it may not be too late to rein in climate change. But time is of the essence, not just to protect the coastal areas, but to prevent a possible worldwide catastrophe.

H.E. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is President of the Republic of Maldives.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Small Islands 1999
Issue on Climate & Action 1998
Issue on Climate Change 1997
Carlston Boucher: No island is an island (Tourism) 1999



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