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?
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.
It too was pokey – enough room to walk around the bed but only just – the wardrobe and chest of drawers filled most of the rest of the space. A stand up shower integrated with the toilet (i.e. they were almost on top of each other) and a TV against the wall of the main room was about all I could expect. At best I could say they made optimum use of the space they had available. I thanked the guide and I started to unpack. As usual if I am in town for more than one night I like to spread my stuff around and put some sort of stamp on this anonymous space.
The window was covered in a thick net curtain. I drew it back and gazed upon a most unusual view of the Maldives. I could not see the sea. In fact I could not see much apart from the backs of all the houses and tower blocks around me. At least I could see beyond the other side of the street as there were a cluster of low rise buildings with tin roofs nestled in amongst the more modern apartment buildings. Unfortunately the owners of these seemed to consider these roofs as both extra storage space or dumping ground. The roof opposite was strewn with an old sink, several planks of wood, tubing, a box for some electrical equipment, pots of paint, spare tin roofing, and bits of vegetation that had somehow been left up there. Let’s say it was not a pretty sight.
Not your typical view of the Maldives
I drew the net curtain back, took off my travelling clothes and took a quick forty winks – after all I had been travelling for the best part of the last 24 hours, and with spending the wee hours traipsing round Dubai airport, I could do with a bit of catch up sleep.
It did not last very long. The phone rang and I heard Jeremy’s cheery voice inviting me to join him and our engineer, Dave, in reception. I quickly mustered together a new outfit (shorts and t-shirt) and headed down the steep steps.
Immediately the car dived into the interior of the island. The traffic was busy – not just cars but hundreds of mopeds and small lorries and vans. We inched down narrow streets for about five minutes before turning on to a wider road. I could see in front of us that the road stretched off in a straight line right across the island – the gap of blue sky at the end denoting the western coast. Behind me, slightly closer, was another gap marking the eastern end of the island. Over a hundred thousand people packed into this tiny island and even on this first transect I could start to see how it managed to pack these people in. They built high – every block was crammed with houses heading several storeys high. Next to the narrow roads were narrow sidewalks, all the vehicles were smaller and all the sidewalks were crammed with people, and Maldivians were small so more could pack into the limited space.
In the narrow streets
Eventually we turned off this main thoroughfare and headed down a couple more streets before eventually stopping in the middle of the street – it was barely two lanes wide – and I was escorted into a tall narrow building on a corner. The front was wide enough to take a thin door and a slim window and no more. From the entrance hall – smaller than most houses’, I came into a cosy reception area, a couple of comfy seats set around a coffee table and at the back a high desk. I was checked in and then a hotel porter helped me with my case. He squeezed it in alongside me in a narrow lift, then walked up the two flights of stairs to meet me as I alighted. The landing was tiny with only three doors off – barely enough space for 3 rooms on each floor – and I was welcomed in through the door of my room at the back of the hotel.
It was here that I spent a week helping the Maldivian government look at one of the most critical issues for their nation, how to engineer the islands to resist the relentless onslaught of sea level rise. I’d been invited to join a consortium of consultants by Jeremy Hills, with whom I had walked the Mauritian coast a couple of years beforehand.
A flight to Dubai and then on to Male brought me there overnight. The capital is both small and packed with buildings, so the main International Airport for the Maldives is on the nearby Hulhule Island, which itself is largely reclaimed to make the runway large enough for long haul aircraft. And most bizarrely, as we landed in one direction on the tarmac runway, a small seaplane coming from one of the other islands was dropping into the sea next to the airport.
After the formalities in the airport I was collected by someone from the ministry I was working for. But instead of heading to a car, we walked across a quiet road and on to a wooden jetty. In a small protected harbour there were a series of small docks. Ferries were coming in and out at all angles and at frequent intervals. We only had to wait a short time for our ferry to fill up, many passengers’ suitcases, including mine , piled up at the front end of the boat.
Our trip to Male was barely 15 minutes. Once out in the open water we wove our way between a mixture of different vessels – more ferries like ours, yachts and cruisers, cargo boats, fishing boats, boats carrying oil supplies, even one naval ship complete with helicopter on the aft deck..
We were heading south westwards to a dramatic skyline of tall office blocks, apartments and hotels that fronted Male’ northern coast. As we drew closer, the detail of the front became clearer. the buildings were set back and it appeared the whole coast was protected by a high concrete wall. With a few breaks in these defences, boats were able to access the city itself. Ferries were congregating to a gap at the eastern end. Behind the wall was extensive sheltered water running the length of the coast. We came ashore and I waited for my suitcase to be offloaded, then we clambered into a small taxi on the main tree lined thoroughfare beside the sea wall.