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Young Reader's World

Raising the Maldives
That's Hulhumalé—the northern end," says the guide as we fly above the central Maldives. Boats wait for owners and tourists, tree branches wave in the cooling breezes, homes and businesses line the well-planned roads and in the center is the domed Qatar Mosque. No wonder many Maldivians want to move here.

Adapted from a story by Larry Luxner and photographed by Larry Luxner

It's another hot afternoon on the island of Hulhumalé in the Maldives, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. Work crews lay asphalt for a new street and a loudspeaker atop the golden-domed Qatar Mosque calls Muslims to prayer.

Inside a nearby café, half a dozen men sit in darkness, smoking cigarettes, as they wait for the lights to come back on after a midday power failure.

Despite the annoyance, café owner Abdullah Waseem is clearly upbeat.

Stairway to a diver’s heaven, a resort villa opens to the crystalline Indian Ocean that floats both the Maldives’ tourism economy and the country’s concerns for its future.
"Ready? Then, jump in! The crystal clear waters are a diver's heaven!" This stairway leads from a popular resort in the Maldives.

“I love it here,” says the 41-year-old father of two as he dishes out curried chicken and pours glasses of tea. Born and raised in Addu, at the southern tip of the 768-kilometer (475-mi) Maldive archipelago, he spent most of his life in Malé, the capital city―just across the sea from Hulhumalé. In overcrowded Malé, his family was crammed into a two-room dwelling. Four years ago, he rented a four-room apartment in Hulhumalé and became one of the first of what are now some 5000 permanent residents of this box-shaped, manmade island built from landfill.

“When we came here, there were very few facilities, no clinics, no police service, nobody to look after this place,” he says. “People thought it would take a long time to develop Hulhumalé. But it's much better now, and it costs about 40 percent less to live here than in Malé.”

Indeed, Malé is overcrowded. Some 90,000 of the 385,000 people who call the Maldives home are packed into the 2.6 square-kilometer (1 sq mi) island. That makes Malé, with its jumble of high-rises, one of the most densely populated capitals on Earth. Yet, the country actually consists of 1192 islands, the vast majority of them remote and uninhabited, smack in the middle of the ocean.

Hulhumalé neither looks nor feels anything like its natural sister islands. All work on the island has been carefully planned—from its beginning in 1997 to its official inauguration in 2004. The goal is for Hulhumalé to boost the country's economic fortunes while staving off the rising seas that may one day wipe much of the world's smallest Muslim nation off the map.


By Maldivian standards, Hulhumalé is high ground: It rises two meters (6' 6") above the sea. That's double the elevation of some 80 percent of the other islands, measured at their highest points. With worldwide sea level rising up to nine-tenths of a centimeter (1/3") per year, the entire country—except Hulhumalé—could be underwater within a century.

The island was the brainchild of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the country's former president. Under his leadership, the Maldives became the first country to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol urging reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which most scientists believe cause global warming. For the Maldives, the likely effects of gradually rising temperatures include more coastal erosion, increasing salt content in freshwater sources, changes in the tide and, most significantly, the gradual deterioration, even destruction, of the coral reefs that include both the islands themselves and the natural breakwaters that protect them against the deep ocean just beyond.

“Over half of our islands are eroding at an alarming rate,” Gayoom said in 2007. “In some cases, island communities have [already] had to be relocated to safer islands. Without immediate action, the long-term habitation of our tiny islands is in serious doubt.”

One such island is Meedhoo, 140 kilometers (87 mi) north of Malé and home to around 2000 people. Ishaag Ahmed, off duty from his job as a security guard at the health clinic there, is lounging on a beach hammock with friends. His brother owns Ozone, a shop that caters to the European tourists who arrive on day trips.

Just a 10-minute walk from Ozone is a makeshift camp housing some 200 refugees from Kandholhudhoo. This densely populated island north of Malé was heavily damaged in the December 2004 tsunami. Today, in what might be a scene from the future, the people in the camp live in houses of wood and corrugated metal sheeting, 12 to 15 to a room. For nearly five years, the government has promised to build houses for them on the island of Dhuvaafaru. In the meantime, the refugees pass the time playing cards, learning English and kicking a soccer ball around a dusty field.

In Kandholhudhoo, increasingly frequent tidal surges flood the homes of those who remain. Some 60 percent of the island's residents have volunteered to evacuate over the next 15 years.

Aware of the urgency of the situation, the government is pushing the planting of trees to hold back erosion, the cleanup of coral reefs to slow their deterioration, and the teaching of environmental protection in all Maldivian schools. The goal is for the Maldives to become the world's first carbon-neutral country by 2020. The government is working with international climate experts to plan for wind-and solar-energy production—something that may also attract eco-tourists.

In Meedhoo, refugees from the 2004 tsunami reside in makeshift homes while awaiting completion of permanent homes on Dhuvaafaru, a previously uninhabited island.
Their houses destroyed, refugees of the 2004 tsunami live in makeshift homes on Meedhoo, an island in the Addu Atoll (see map). There they await completion of permanent homes on Dhuvaafaru, a previously uninhabited island.

In the meantime, Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed has another plan. Soon after his election in 2008, he announced that part of the country's tourism income would go into a sovereign wealth fund. The money will be used to acquire land in nearby countries such as India and Sri Lanka, or even Australia. “We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own,” Nasheed says, “so we have to buy land elsewhere. It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome.”

That idea doesn't sit well with Malé cabdriver Ahmed Hussain. “Nobody wants to go to India or Sri Lanka. They're much poorer than the Maldives,” he says as he navigates Malé's narrow, congested streets. “We'd rather go to the Middle East or Europe. But I hope it won't happen, because we don't want to be climate refugees.”

Ahmed Karam, who works for Hulhumalé Development Corp. (HDC), is well aware that beaches are shrinking. He remembers that he used to go to Viligili, an island 10 minutes west of Malé by ferry, for picnics when he was a child. “The beach was bigger then,” he says. “Now, the waves come right up to the trees.”

At present, Hulhumalé measures 1.8 square kilometers (0.69 sq mi). A causeway connects it to Hulhulé, the “airport island” where foreign visitors arrive and depart.

Bob Blake, ambassador from the United States to both Sri Lanka and the Maldives, believes growing numbers of tourists will boost the economy. “The Maldives has seen a substantial economic transformation over the last 25 years…,” he says. “Thanks to tourism development, the Maldives has gone from being South Asia's poorest country to its richest in just one generation.”

Built from sand and coral dredged from the surrounding lagoon, Hulhumalé will have housing for 50,000 people when the first phase of its construction is completed by 2020. By then, planners say, the island will boast government offices, an industrial zone, shopping centers, tree-lined boulevards, a marina, a national stadium and some dozen mosques. A second, more ambitious phase involves reclaiming a further 2.4 square kilometers (0.92 sq mi), more than doubling the size of the island and bringing its population to 150,000.

Investment in the project is mostly from the government, says Nuha Mohammed Riza, HDC's deputy director. “We have three residential neighborhoods … and an industrial area where plots of land are being leased for carpentry workshops, warehousing and small fish-processing plants,” she explains.

In Meedhoo, refugees from the 2004 tsunami reside in makeshift homes while awaiting completion of permanent homes on Dhuvaafaru, a previously uninhabited island. In Meedhoo, refugees from the 2004 tsunami reside in makeshift homes while awaiting completion of permanent homes on Dhuvaafaru, a previously uninhabited island.
Meet a few Maldivians. These futures of these young men and women—and the coming generation—may well be determined by how global warming is handled. In 1992, then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, warned the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that the island country might disappear beneath the waves in less than a hundred years.

Cookie-cutter apartment buildings rising to 12 stories are beginning to dot the island, which already has a school, a pharmacy, lots of shops and at least two Internet cafés.

“We sell the [apartment] units to the public at cost,” she says. “We have already sold close to 400 individual plots of land for development. The people who buy the land build their own houses. Land costs $30 per square foot here, compared to $600 per square foot in Malé.”

As a result, snaring an apartment on Hulhumalé can feel like winning a lottery. “For every round of social housing development we've announced, we see the number of applicants far exceed the available supply,” Riza says, noting that more than 9000 people applied for the 504 housing units currently under construction.

But all is not paradise in this utopia, which clearly lacks the charm and appeal of colorful Malé.

“In Hulhumalé, we have only one problem: Nobody is responsible for these islanders,” complains Waseem, the café owner. “On Malé and other islands, there are island chiefs. But here we have only the HDC. And if somebody gets sick or injured, we don't even have a hospital.”

Yet when asked about climate change, Waseem cheerfully brushes the question aside.

“I'm not worried,” he says as he waits on a customer. “God will look after us.”


Click here to view the original article (pages 2-9 of the May/June 2009 print edition of Saudi Aramco World).

Larry Luxner, news editor of The Washington Diplomat and publisher of CubaNews, has reported from nearly 90 countries in his journalistic career. He can be reached at [email protected].



This lesson correlates to the following national standards for world history and language arts, established by MCREL at http://www.mcrel.org/:

  • Understands the environmental consequences of people changing the physical environment (e.g., the effects of ozone depletion, climate change, deforestation, land degradation, soil salinization and acidification, ocean pollution, groundwater-quality decline, using natural wetlands for recreational and housing development)
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes
  • Demonstrates competency in the general skills and strategies of the writing process