At first Male does not seem to change as you walk through, it is a relentless sequence of streets full of small businesses; offices, shops, workshops or restaurants and cafes, but gradually you see the different things and the subtle differences. I started coming across small squares in amongst the high rises, maybe with a banana plant or a palm tree. There might be a playground set in some trees, or a temple set back from the pavement.
It never took long , though to reach the coast again. On the south side of the island, the wave action was stronger and most of the coastline was protected by huge concrete structures, tetrapods, that reminded me of the jacks in the game of the same name. Their angular protrusions broke up the wave energy more effectively than a solid wall, but it really makes Male look like a fortress. They rise higher than the level of the promenade and you can barely see the ocean beyond. However, if I stood on one of the concrete benches along the harbourside, I could see the next set of islands in the distance, the Male South Atoll, and the little pinprick of streetlights showed me they were inhabited.
I wondered where the boats got out of this harbour; these tetrapods right along this coast. Looking later on Google Earth I realised the nearest breach was nearly a mile to the west near where my office was. Any boats at this end would have to weave between countless other vessels before even reaching the open sea.
Tetrapods beating off the waves
That night, I told Jeremy about the phone. I tried to take it apart and let it dry out, but I never got another response out of it. I think the combination of the water and its salt content had shorted out any sensitive components. I could not even get the damn thing to charge again. At least, I thought, that was the disaster of the trip. Fate had other ideas for me. That evening I was working away at the tiny desk squeezed in between my bed and wardrobe. I leant back on my chair and felt the back leg wobble. I looked down and saw all my weight was pushed onto the leg, which was now merrily slicing through my adaptor cable for my laptop. I jolted forwards and reached down to grab the cable, but it was too late. all the exposed metal had been sliced through and mashed together, and the only reason the unit stayed in one piece was because the plastic on the underside of the cable was still joined by one or two tenuous threads.
I had about two hours battery life left to do any more work on Male. Or so I first thought. What were the chances that there was a shop which sold the right sort of cable for my laptop? I went and explained to Jeremy who looked at me sympathetically but also was probably thinking – this guy always screws up when I meet him.
It was late in the day now and shops were already shut, but a search on line revealed there was a small computer shop about 6 blocks away from the hotel. Early next morning after breakfast I stole through the streets alone trying to find the shop. It was more obvious than I expected once I was in the right street; it had a large window display of computer parts showing. I went indoors and was greeted by a very enthusiastic manager and his sheepish assistant. I got the laptop and cable out and explained the problem. He sucked through his teeth for a microsecond then waved for his assistant to go searching in a bunch of drawers below the display cabinets. Eventually they found a multi plug adaptor and the manager eagerly tested each plug. I was relieved; one fitted. The cost was not as horrendous as I had expected either, although it was still a dumb amount of money to have to be paying out if I had been more careful with my cable in the first place.
I thanked them profusely and went to the office to catch up with Jeremy and Dave. We had one more day together, which was spent at a preliminary debrief meeting with the minister, but then Jeremy and Dave were heading off on their island hopping tour for several days and I would pretty much be on my own apart from the meetings in the government buildings. I worked mostly in the office in the Government complex and would head back to the hotel around 4pm, once the civil servants had finished work. This then gave me a couple of hours of daylight each night for about four days to walk the streets of Male. We’d spent most of our time in the south western quadrant of the island; the government office being on the south coast, our hotel towards the top right corner almost in the centre of the island and all the restaurants we had been to in between. Otherwise it had been the ferry dock to the airport and that was it. I needed to tromp the streets and find out more. I started heading out the east, not really having a plan but a general direction. I would zigzag through the narrow side streets observing the home commute and families getting back together at the end of the day for their main meal, or splitting off into groups to play in the street, court on the promenade or have a good old natter on a corner.
We said our farewells and sat back in our cruiser. It headed back out and we watched the procession of resort, uninhabited, settled and functional islands. Of the last two I noticed there was an island that was used as the fuel storage depot – nice idea keeping it separate from the heaving metropolis of Male. We passed by one of the resorts you see in all the brochures. A long line of chalets on a pier, everything on stilts so you can sleep above the ocean. Two things would concern me staying there – I’ve never found ocean noises that soothing. I can put up with lap lap lap of gentle waves; it is quite sleep inducing, but everything else, the bird flapping on their roosts, the fish gurgling at the surface and the hiss and froth noises with anything beyond the gentlest of swells have never been calming. I was OK in Tortola where my apartment was 900 ft above the waves, but to be sleeping right on top of it? And second, if you dropped anything down the cracks or over the side of the chalet it would be so much more of a fag going hunting for it amongst the coral than just rootling in the undergrowth. I wondered if they had chalet maids with snorkels for just that possibility.
The boat traffic increased again as we drew closer to Male and we could see the urban skyline grow in front of us. We were earlier than expected as we drew in between the small beacons marking the entrance and once Mohammed had said farewell and headed back to his office, we decided we needed a drink. On the top floor of a nearby building was a large cafe and we headed up there; the air being cooler up there than in the packed streets. Once the menu was put in front of us we realised we were also very hungry, not having eaten at all on Thulusdhoo so we ordered some sandwiches and looked around. I found it bizarre to stare across the channel to the next island and see the huge tailfin of an Emirates Airbus poking up from behind the palm trees as it sat waiting at the airport.
The Airport from the mainland
The more I saw, the more I worked out how you could live on a bunch of tiny islands in the middle of the ocean. Each island seemed to have a function, whether it be nature reserve or fuel depot or airport. The people did not see each coastline as a limit, the shallow seas in between were as much their gardens, their recreation areas, their farmers fields, even their living space, as any piece of dirt.
We completed the end of our walk by navigating our way along these boatyards of the northern coast. There was a lot to map here, many jetties – some wooden, others concrete, little docks where boats were brought in to be repaired. The smell of paint and other chemicals permeated the air. Eventually we were in a very industrial landscape -a large factory licensed to make most of the soft drinks for the whole of the Maldives, including Coca Cola. Although a sizeable plant, there appeared to be nothing going on here. Maybe it was a night shift when all the brewing and bottling took place. Next door was the main dock. While the passenger boats came in at the small beach side jetty like we ourselves had done, the cargo ships needed heavier handling, and there was a concrete hard surrounded by a couple of sheds, a couple of containers and piles of freight strewn across it.
Our guides took us back through the town to a small restaurant. We came in from the blinding sunshine and sat at a small table covered in plastic. We chatted over a couple of cokes before heading back to our boat. We’d zigzagged a couple of times during the day in amongst these houses, and apart from the odd church, mosque and school, it was pretty much the same style of villa house surrounded by high walls. I guessed beyond any cultural trait of having these high walls, they gave some protection to flooding from the sea. But I was told that most of the flooding came from rain. The freshwater filled up the reserves below the ground, but once full there was no other drainage and the water would seep up anywhere.
And it is not just a case of moving houses from one side of the island to the other. One of the major government policies over recent years is to reduce the dispersion of populations across the archipelago, and focus development, housing and facilities in fewer islands. The cost of administration, the logistics of education and health care, the isolation of some communities from entertainment, social care and job opportunities have caused this policy to be actively developed. Thulusdhoo already as an administrative centre for the whole atoll is one of the islands targeted.
We saw plans for about a hundred new housing plots over the western end of the island, as well as the small nature reserve there is an open scrubby area of ground where some cattle were grazing and crops grown, and various boatyards and workshops in different states of repair. According to the map we saw this would be overlaid with the same grid iron pattern of streets and house plots that dominated the rest of the island.
Plans for an island – is it sustainable?
It opened up new views of the Maldives to me. The story of how they were fighting off sea level rise was a familiar one to me – I even had worked on a project at university in the 1980s exploring the various options. My solutions there had been rather clunky – using material from the inside of the atolls to build up the outside, more sea defences, different land uses. Now I was here I could see that all of these had been tried and more. But my view was that every island was the same and uniformly affected by sea level rise. What I now saw was that while there was that inexorable pathway to submergence from sea level rise, the short term effects of that were affecting one side of the island more than the other. Having a small amount of rise might not impact the coast, but if a storm came in, the accumulation of larger waves on top of an incremental change in normal levels could be devastating for a vulnerable coastline. And that is what I had seen on the eastern side of the island. When the sea is benign there is not issue, but if a storm hits serious erosion can happen overnight – especially if trees topple and the loss of roots shakes free lots of sand and soil.
But what appeared to be happening is the island is migrating. Much of the material that was removed from the east was migrating round to the west, and the island is gently moving towards the centre of the atoll.
The long term dynamics must be more complicated that this and it might take many generations for the island to move a long way, but it was undeniable that most of the slack, the dune and the beach were relatively recent additions to the coral island. The upshot is though that given the small size of these islands and some with a high population density, there is not enough room for leaving the usual setbacks that minimize damage to property in storms.
Is the island stable, eroding or migrating?
I cursed myself for not checking that pocket. I had been so meticulous with every other item; the one thing I was carrying that was worth a lot I had forgotten. Well there was nothing to be done. I caught up with the rest of the walkers but for the time being did not mention anything about the phone to them. We had work to do and there was not time to think about my stupidity.
The south coast was a nice stable sandy beach and as we headed westwards the house plots diminished – some were not even built on. And there were open communal spaces here with pathways down to the coast. The vegetation was lush and thick and held the land together.
This western end of the island, away from most of the settlement, was also where their refuse dump was. The system was easy – each household would truck or walk down with their rubbish and leave it. There was a modicum of sorting going on, areas where metals and tyres were stacked, but for the most part everything from household waste to paints, builders rubble, and so much paper and plastic, was dumped in a mixture either side of a pathway. And small smouldering fires rose from these piles to try and reduce it down. The councillors were aware of all the problems of poisonous pollutants entering the air and the precious fresh water lens below their feet, but they shrugged their shoulders and said “where else can we put it”.
We ended up at the western tip of the island, and here the whole island dynamic came to its unexpected conclusion. We traipsed through a very pleasant nature reserve – some slacks where water came to the surface and had produced a haven for frogs, dragonflies and marsh loving plants. The community had set up a couple of walkways through, a picnic area and signage to explain what you were finding. Like a park anywhere in the world but beautifully laid out in miniature here on this tiny island. The slacks were behind the highest point on the island – a small series of sand dunes that towered above us to the height of about…. six metres.
On the far side of these was a wide sandy beach, which was more of a triangular shape than running parallel to the coast. This was the answer to what happened to the material scraped off by the waves on the east end of the island. It gradually washed in the longshore currents to this end of the island and since the water was less active was actually accumulating here, hence the sand building up to its triangular apex.