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.
We started out survey by walking clockwise round the island. By my calculations the coast was no more than 3km but it was not all Bounty adverts and beauty calendars. There were some nice sandy stretches true, but the first part in particular was sharp knobbly coral rock and rubble. We logged all the features we could see. Any jetties (that might potentially clog up the natural dynamics of the sand on the beach), bits of sea defence, walls, sewage pipes.
As we started moving away from the eastern shore the beach was more settled. We saw a lot more sand and the water itself was calmer and less damaging. Not only were the palm trees protected, but other trees hung down into the water, or grew in the sand itself. We started to see some mangroves. In front of us was a long stand of mangroves then a substantial channel on the sand, with a small coral island beyond, covered in vegetation. I was going to be the good surveyor and make sure I walked the entire coastline, so I decided to wade through the channel. I took off my shoes and socks and placed them in my bag, then I carefully unzipped my trousers. Let me explain. I was wearing long field trousers, partly since I knew with the meeting we had to be semi-formally dressed. But they had zips just above the knees where I could take off the lower legs and convert them to shorts. I placed these leg-ins in my bag then took my wallet, handkerchief, hotel room key and placed them deep in my knapsack. I patted these top pockets to make sure they were empty, then zipped up my bag and placed it high on my back. With GPS in hand I wandered round the mangrove, leaving my colleagues and the village heads walking round the back.
At first the water was shallow, but my feet sank slightly into the soft sand. But then as I came around into the channel itself the water level hit my knees. I realised that there was deeper to come and even my shorts would get wet, but hey ho, this is a warm climate – they will soon dry.
So I took one more step and sank up to the top of my thighs. I tried to keep my bag, notepad and GPS high above the water and was realising there was little to note here that I would not have seen from the bank, when I realised my left thigh was vibrating vigorously. I knew immediately what was causing it and I ran to the bank. I say ran, what it was really was a violent wade. Once out I dumped my bag on the dry sand and dug into the leg pocket of my shorts, retrieving a very wet looking mobile phone. It was still vibrating and making pitiful noises at me. I flipped it open and water trapped inside flushed out. The screen flashed a couple of times then went dark. I tried to turn it off but the vibrating went on. It was like watching the death throes of a small mammal. In a last ditch attempt to save it I ripped the back cover off and took out the battery. The vibration stopped. I reached into my bag for my handkerchief and wiped the battery down, then dabbed inside the phone casement and all round the screen and buttons. Maybe it was just the contacts that had got wet and now it would be OK. I gingerly put the battery back in and closed up the cover. With a deep breath I depressed the on button. Two seconds later the horrible vibration started over again. Then it stopped. Silence. My phone was dead.
On the beach – the phone died round the next corner….
We held our meeting and heard the views from the local council members. There was a lot of detail but one thing that was drawn to our attention was that one side of the island was being affected much worse than the other. We had agreed that we wanted to survey the whole coastline of the island and we thought that seeing the issues was better than talking about them. The chiefs of the village council came along with us and we first targeted the coastline that was most under threat.
As soon as we stepped onto the rocks on the eastern side, the problem became apparent to us. This was the most exposed part of the coast; beyond the reef was the open Indian Ocean – this island was on the outside of the atoll, and on the eastern fringe of the ridge on which the Maldives sits. Weather often approaches from the east and this is where storm surges and wind can do the most damage. The water was choppy here and the land had been steadily chomped away by the wave action. The roots of palm trees were exposed and in some cases had been completely undermined and the trees toppled into the water. There was hardly any sand here, lots of pebbles and loose bits of bricks and rubble and coral.
Only about 50m from us was the reef edge – a slim line of coral that was just about above the level of the current waves. They smashed against this wall, constantly chipping off bits. It would be a miracle if the coral were able to regenerate at the same rate as it was being eroded. About twenty years beforehand money was spent on building up the coral reef with concrete, but no maintenance had been done since, and much of the rubble we could see on the beach was what had been pounded out from this old defence. The rest came from recycled building material that the villages had used to fill in the gaps in the natural coastline – stopping up breaches, replacing the net of roots that had been lost. This exposed coastline was not far from the sheltered northern harbour which we had arrived at, and this end of the island was almost completely covered in housing plots – all built on. The coastline was gradually retreating and in some places had dislodged the blocks making up perimeter walls. In a couple of places houses had been abandoned where the land had been eaten away too close to their foundations.
Rubble shows where the sand has been scraped away
and the trees fall in the ocean when undercut
Soon we were passing less urbanised islands. We passed the first of many resorts; the secluded high class villas and restaurants peeping out between the trees, and little jetties with yachts and dinghies gleaming with their chrome and shiny white hulls. On the right another island seemed to float on the ocean – a perfectly flat piece of land barely above sea level – I could see the waves on the other side through the palm trees.
These resort islands were tiny, but ahead was a more substantial piece of land. It was covered with trees and a red and white faraday cage covered with microwave transmitters and receivers poked up five times the height of the canopy. But we could only see a few buildings on our approach. We passed a couple of cruisers and turned the eastern corner of the island and now the “metropolis” of Thulusdhoo was revealed. Behind a number of small boats and one tall ship were a cluster of low roofed warehouses. And at last we could see some activity on the beach. The engines on our cruiser were cut down and we drifted gently into a small jetty at the end of one of the streets. I glanced down into the water – inside the reef it was so glassy, and so shallow that I felt I could put my finger tips through the surface and be already touching the white sand beneath
We disembarked and ambled along a short covered jetty to the main street. Apart from the odd child and dog, there was no-one around to greet us so we rested in a shelter on the beach. Around us fishnets were hanging out to dry from trees dotted around the sand. A gentle breeze made the leaves rustle but there were no other nearby noises. We sat and chatted about the needs for the project with Mohammed, sitting on cool tiled seats while we waited for our hosts.
It was about fifteen minutes later that a few serious looking gentlemen approached in suits or shirts and ties. They greeted Mohammed and we were introduced. They led us off into the settlement behind the beach. The houses were arranged in a regular grid of streets. I call them streets but really they were just formed from hardened sand. But the houses themselves were all substantial concrete buildings, mostly single storey and with airy verandas and neat gardens enclosed with high walls. We were led through a few streets, picking up people en route, and finally entered a more imposing building. It still was not huge, but appeared to be the council offices for the local district, of which Thulusdhoo was the capital. Several more men were seated around a table that stretched the entire length of the room. We set up our laptops next to a projector and squoze into any of the spare plastic patio chairs.
On the sleepy streets
I sprawled in the back and looked around me. I now got to see the interface between water and land from another angle. As we gently pulled out and turned to head north, I could see the modern office blocks backing the harbour and a long row of these bus boats along the harbour. I keep saying harbour, but in fact all this was a long pool protected from the open sea by sea defences. and I could see how boats of various types occupied different parts of it.
Once out in the open water, our captain opened up the throttle and the cruiser tilted to about 30 degrees and pushed hard against the sea. As we accelerated, I kept glancing back and saw the bizarreness of Male further and further revealed. It was like Manhattan in the ocean – every inch crammed with tall apartment and office blocks. Its inshore waters were divided up into the different activities to keep such a maritime city running – I could see a larger container ship on the north west corner of the island.
As we pulled out I could see both ends of the main island and the obviousness of its limited landmass. Nearby I could see several other islands, the one holding the airport of course, but also several others which seemed to have larger populations too. Not just were there evidence of rooftops and the occasional higher rise flats, but also the various masts for communication and entertainment.
Next morning we had to be up early to travel to Thulusdhoo, a populated island to the north east of Male. We crammed into a small taxi with our field kit and inched our way through the morning traffic, across the main shopping street and almost back to the wharf where I first embarked from the airport.
It was there that I got the first jolt against my presumptions of living on small Maldivian islands. Many of the people who work in Male do not live on Male. From several directions we could see bus like boats crammed full of commuters. They slipped into the harbour with ease and discharged their human cargoes on the already crowded streets of Male. There was no pushing, squabbling, hardly a noise save for the low whirr of the boats’ engines; but still hundreds of people at a time, dressed smartly in shirt and trousers, suits, dresses, saris and burqas, would stream off the gangplanks in a serene harmony.
We were waiting for our local project manager, Mohamed, to arrive, and also waiting for our own boat to Thulusdhoo. The boat was obvious; from the north a large white cruiser entered the harbour and made straight for us. They had clearly been told to expect three Brits and since we were the only (relatively) tall and white people on the hard the helmsman headed the boat straight for us.
Mohamed, a young, quiet but authoritative and knowledgeable man turned up soon after in light blue trousers and an open white shirt, cool shades and a fresh haircut. He had a satchel slung across his shoulder and he greeted each of us in turn. Within a few moments we were aboard our cruiser – four of us spread over three rows of seats at the rear of the boat, and we were being steered out to the open water.
The sun was starting to set – glistening on the golden dome of a large mosque on the other side of the square. So we ambled back to the hotel and observed the first of many rush hours in Male that I was to experience that week. The pavements are narrow and often obstructed by constructions, piles of waste, the odd vehicle parked up, or shop wares on display. So we had to zigzag from street to sidewalk and watch out for all the other traffic around. There were many small cars and trucks and the occasional bus, but mostly it was mopeds and motorcycles. We often walked single file , trying not to knock over the stack of bikes parked up on the roadside. As people left their places of work, they did what so many workers do – they hurry home, they pick up some last minute shopping items – either that key ingredient for the evening meal, or something for the house that will help them clean, entertain, relax, sleep. Others went to exercise before the night came on – frantic football matches on the small patches of sports fields around the southern part of the island.
While it was familiar, two things crossed my mind as we transected through the streets. One was the intensity of activity in these narrow streets. The second was that whatever the commuting was to be done, it would only be a small distance before people reached their destination, given the island was barely a mile across. I was to be proved wrong on that one later.
We ate at a small restaurant a couple of streets away. Being in an open courtyard it gave us some fresher air to sit in, but the height of the buildings around both was claustrophobic and allowed the noise of all the clients resound against the concrete. Maldives being a strictly Muslim country, alcohol was not on any menus; indeed only in secluded tourist resorts could you access as much as a beer. So I got used to teas, cordials and sharp acidic lemonades. All of which were remarkably refreshing in the humid heat in the city.