Beating off the waves – How the Maldives extends beyond the land

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.

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Typical resort

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.

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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.

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Beating off the Waves – Industry on a small island

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.

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Industry on a small island

Beating off the waves – Survival or Development?

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.

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Plans for an island – is it sustainable?

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 – Death of an old companion

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.

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On the beach – the phone died round the next corner….

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 – The sleepy island

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.

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On the sleepy streets