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Maldives Faces Global Warming 'Goliath'

Islands: Nation, urging curbs on pollution, could disappear if sea level rises.


THULUSDHOO, Maldives — In this nation of sandbars, global warming is not some dry idea best left to the scientists.

It's death by drowning.

Eighty percent of the Maldives, a sparkling sweep of 1,180 islands in the Indian Ocean, sits less than 3 feet above the water's surface.

That means that, under some of the more credible scenarios for rising sea levels, the entire nation could vanish, Atlantis-like, into the sea.

"We would be environmental refugees," said Hussain Shihab, the Maldives' former minister for environmental affairs. "If nothing is done, our country could be underwater sometime in the future."

The fear has penetrated the consciousness of this nation of 263,000 people, spurring talk and action of an intensity unseen in the West. And it has created a deep sense of frustration, that a nation of fewer than 3,000 carbon-dioxide-emitting automobiles could perish from circumstances it cannot control.

As representatives of about 150 nations gather next week in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate cutbacks in the output of the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming, few countries carry more urgent pleas than the 30-odd small island states of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.

'Facing a Goliath'

For such countries--the Maldives, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji and others--even a small rise in the world's sea levels could mean not just washed-out sea walls and eroded coastlines but national catastrophe and even extinction.

"We are not responsible for this problem, but we are the first to feel its effects," said Tuiloma Neroni Slade, United Nations ambassador from Samoa, a nation of islands in the South Pacific. "We are facing a Goliath."

With the most to lose, the small island states are pushing for the sharpest reductions in greenhouse gases. While the U.S. has proposed that industrialized countries begin in 2008 to reduce emissions to 1990 levels, the 35-nation Alliance of Small Island States is pushing for a 20% cutback from 1990 levels by 2005.

"We don't think that's unreasonable," said Abdullahi Majeed, the Maldives' deputy minister for the environment. "This is a matter of life and death for us."

While the exact nature and timing of the threat probably won't be clear for years, island countries such as the Maldives have every reason to worry. A five-year study by the International Panel on Climate Change, a group of top researchers from 25 countries, predicts that, by 2100, sea levels could rise anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet.

If the high-end forecasts come true, most of the Maldives would be swallowed by the ocean. Even the mid-range estimates--a rise of 20 inches--would devastate the Maldives, wiping away some islands, shrinking others, changing the shapes of still more.

If that happens, officials here say, the Maldives' booming tourism business, which accounts for 20% of the country's economic activity, would be devastated. The infiltration of seawater would kill the trees and plants that hold the islands together. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Maldivians would have to move inland. Many would have to evacuate their islands altogether.

Some Maldivians say they doubt that the West is willing to curtail its use of fossil fuels enough to make a difference.

"The rich nations will do what they want," said Sakeena Adam, 48, of Thulusdhoo, a tiny island where in some spots the ocean is visible in every direction. "Perhaps God will save us."

For now, the Maldives seems scarcely touched by the industrialized West. The archipelago stretches across the Indian Ocean in a panorama of pastels, each island surrounded by a halo of aquamarine. The translucent waters reveal schools of tropical fish. No building outside the capital is higher than the coconuts in the trees.

Climate Changing

Yet a closer look highlights the Maldives' vulnerability. Strung out across 550 miles in 26 atolls, most of the islands take up less than a square mile. Some are smaller than a football field. Few have sea walls. Many of the isles, too small for permanent populations, serve single purposes. One island, for instance, is dedicated to oil storage. Another holds a prison. Another is a trash dump.

At Male International Airport, an island unto itself, the ocean laps both sides of the runway. Touching down there in a commercial airliner gives the sensation of landing on an aircraft carrier.

Residents of the Maldives say they have already noticed that their climate--two barely perceptible seasons of sultry winds and soggy monsoons--has already begun to turn.

Two catastrophic storms in the past decade caused more damage than any in recent memory. In 1987, one-third of Male, the Maldives' capital and most populous island, was underwater. In 1991, the runway was submerged and strewn with coral boulders, and the airport closed for three days. Dharavandhoo lost 1,000 feet of beach. Huraagandu, for a time, was submerged completely.

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