Beating off the waves – A country worth saving

The answers were all around me.  The true Maldives is a bustling, proud and possibly unique nation.  Although Male was a heavily urbanised capital on a tiny space, it had an amazing life force inside it; from the busy businesses to the intense social networks.  And here on the eastern edge you could see the population enjoying themselves in the small parks and entertainment areas.

And of course they are a marine nation.  Even those who hide away in the streets of Male for most of their lives, cannot escape that if they walk a kilometre in any direction they are likely to be at the seaside.  And what I had seen was that they were not claustrophobic at all, in fact the sea was a great opening for them as the commuted on, recreated on, drew their nutrition from and were at one with that sea around them.

It certainly seemed to me that it needed to be protected.  And the project I was involved with was forming one small set of rules that could help.  It was essential that Maldives had a whole set of tools to both ameliorate the worst of the effects and find ways for people to cope with the changing way to their lives.  It sounds awful to suggest that people have to live in a totally different way, but Maldivians have always had to live with this; their country has always been changing and morphing as we had seen on Thulusdhoo.  It just might have to be more adaptive, and adapt faster, in future.

They celebrate the work done on the amelioration too – In one little park I saw one of the tetrapods perched on three of its legs and painted white.  On the fourth leg, which stuck up in the air, a sign gave details of when the defences were created, with support from the Japanese, in 1990.

I walked on past more parkland to another sheltered beach area watered from another breach in the sea defences.  This part of the island must get the full force of the Indian Ocean – there are no other islands to the east, just the open sea.  And I saw how even with 2m high walls, the spray was routinely coming over, and large open sewers were intended to stop it ponding behind the walls.  I wondered where those sewers went to and how you got the water to drain naturally back into the sea that was at the same level as the ground.

I’d now walked the entire circumference of Male.  On my final evening alone, I realised there was another transect in the north that would show me more of the city.  I started on the main shopping street again, but this time near the national sports stadium (where, even though I could not see over the stands, I could hear that some big event was going on).  I then headed north but rather than get drawn magnetically once more to the coast, I turned left again and headed through some leafier, quieter streets.  This area looked like it was older and more established than the southern part of Male.  In amongst old villas still with gardens or courtyards were old churches, graveyards, or minaret.  After some time I reached the Islamic Centre with its large golden dome.  I had almost got back to Republican Square.  It was then I saw the riot police.

It was Friday.  Most work had stopped at midday and people had answered the call to prayer.  I decided not to carry on in the government offices and, soon after noon, I had headed back to my hotel room to tidy up and complete the last pieces of work for this consultancy.  As I made my way through the streets I found it blocked several times.  Like so many things in the Maldives, most of the mosques are small and the number of people trying to pray far exceeded their capacity.  So in Male, it was not uncommon to find whole streets shut off , a pile of shoes at one side, and hundreds of men on their mats praying towards the mosque door and Mecca.

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Farewell to the Maldives for me, but I hope not for all

In many Muslim countries, there can be  demonstrations and protests after prayers about whatever is upsetting the populous, possibly egged on by some imams.  I’ve been warned about this in other countries and I suppose I should have thought more carefully about my amblings that afternoon.  To go to the main ceremonial square, the Republic Square,  at this time was probably unwise.

It turned out that the number of riot police outnumbered the protestors,  and I expect it was more a regular routine that the police come prepared in case something boils over.  But in a country where I was used people dressed smartly but comfortably for the heat, to see police in full body armour – blue bullet proof jackets, hard helmets with visors, and all kind of devices strapped around their waists was a disjuncture from the idyll of the sleepy Maldives tourist image.  In fact there is a lot of political tension in the Maldives.  The political elite do not like to be criticised and have imprisoned some who speak out against them.  Some aspects of the Internet are closed to Maldives and the media are controlled carefully.

So maybe it was not surprising that the situation that Friday was revealed to me as I walked around the city.  But to me, it showed that while most of the world just sees the Maldives as a place to escape from the world with the tropical island clichés and top level cuisine and service, I could see a rich and complicated country.  Maldivians had solutions for modern living in this curious archipelago, while maintaining that vital traditional connection with the reef and the sea.  Maybe the sea will drown out the country in a few generations time, and control for stopping that lies well outside Maldives’ waters, but that’s no reason to try hard to adapt to the climate change effects and conserve an amazing, diverse and beautiful country.

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Beating off the waves – Beating off the waves

The little area of grass I was on was inundated with sea water.  It was not from the earlier rain; this had all dried up.  The little swell there was allowed waves to cross the low footpath and saturate the grass.  I spotted more and more of these  damp patches as I walked up this side of the island. Sea level rise is happening right now.  The Maldivians in their planning have tried not to close off the whole island from the sea, but at this gap in the defences the land was suffering the consequences.  No storm, no high wind, the waves easily intruded into the city.

As if to reinforce the reminder that the Maldives are constantly guarded against the ocean’s might, I saw a tall funnel shaped statue on the south east corner of the island. The inscription told me it was the memorial to the 2004 tsunami.  It was over 2500km from the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the huge wave, but with little in the way, the islands were hit badly.  Eighty-eight people died as a result of the tsunami.  I looked again at the pools in the park; if that was what could happen from small sprays of waves, how much damage could happen if another tsunami hit.  I started to ask myself whether it was all worth it.  The inevitability is that sea level will continue to rise for the next few generations and it may mean that most of the Maldives is uninhabitable.  Salt water intrusion onto the land would kill off all the vegetation, it would turn the freshwater lenses saline, it would erode away the land and everything on it.  Even if it were tolerable when the weather was kind, the storms and heavy seas that always happen could seriously impede normal lives, and each time make more too worn out to fight back, and erode the capacity of the nation to bounce back.  Why bother?

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Suffering the intrusions

Beating off the waves – Sinking or migrating?

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.

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Is the island stable, eroding or migrating?

Beating off the waves – A surprise on the leeward side

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.

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You have to put the trash somewhere.

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.

Beating off the waves – Where the waves hit hard

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.

Beating off the Waves – Getting down to business

It was so good to see Jeremy – the last time was four years beforehand when I had to hurriedly leave Rodrigues.  While he introduced me to Dave,  a large cheerful Glaswegian, we quickly caught up on key important updates in our lives, and they gave me a run down in what they had achieved given the 24 hour advantage they had over me in terms of Maldives knowledge.

They had done all the introductory meetings with the government people we were to work with.  We were to head off quickly tomorrow morning to one of the nearby islands to look at the real world implications of the guidelines we were to write.  Then after a further day, Dave and Jeremy were going to head off to some of the more far flung islands while I was to be left in town to work on some database and have a few more meetings with officials.  I was a bit disappointed that I was not to travel further but what I was already seeing was more exotic and enchanting it was bound to be a rich trip.

This small reception area with barely room for a small table and a few comfy chairs, was not conducive to a proper meeting so  we decided we would head off to a cafe to allow them to update me on progress to date.

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Finding a cafe to talk

We headed west from the hotel and in no time at all we had emerged at an open square.  On the far side was a harbour stacked with small coasters, their cargoes packed tightly but rather haphazardly across their decks.  We crossed the road and entered one of several tiny bars – barely a canopy across plastic tables and a small garden area under the trees.  There was little difference between any of them and we flopped around a table and ordered some mint teas.  Jeremy and Dave filled me in on the details; it was a relatively simple operation.  I was dumped with a load of reading materials and told to design a database for them that would catalogue all the sea protection schemes both hard and soft around all the islands.  I was also given some past attempts. One document I was to read at my leisure told of a highly detailed and technical document about harbours across the archipelago, and the government was keen on something similar for coastal protection structures.  I decided mine would be a lot more simple and manageable, and started to think about how I could make a map of the elements and how the detail could be logged easily on a database.

The other element of this was that we would do some sample surveys of a few islands.  I was to help out with one the next day, but then Jeremy and Dave would fly around the islands filling in the gaps while I was to be left along in Male.