Where the Waters Are Rising

A close-up look at the low-lying Maldives, where global warming hits the seawall

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DILIP MEHTA / CONTACT FOR TIME

CITY ON A LILY PAD: On the capital island of Male, where 80,000 people live less than 4 ft. above sea level, the margin of safety is increasingly slim

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First, though, Dhuvaafaru will be given a revetment-reinforced beach bordered by trees and shrubs, and key areas near the center will be raised with landfill. On top of these artificial high points, public buildings--such as a school, a clinic, a mosque--will add a further vertical dimension, creating what government officials refer to as a "safe island," or at least a safer one. "Certainly we will leave the Maldives if we have to," says Amjad Abdulla, deputy director of strategic policy in the Ministry of Environment and Construction, "but we'd like to stay if we can."

Before leaving Malé, I walk clear around the island, stopping at the monument to the tetrapods, the name given to the interlocking concrete blocks that form the towering breakwaters protecting the city's most vulnerable flanks. Behind the breakwaters I hear the crash of invisible waves, in front the laughter of children swimming in the intensely blue water of a narrow canal. I wonder, What will the Maldives be like a couple of centuries from now? Will its corals have adapted to warmer conditions, as some think possible, or will they be forced to seek refuge in artificially maintained reefs? And what of its people, now spread out across 200 islands? Will they retreat to a few fortified strongholds and learn to live, as the Dutch have, behind high walls that cut them off from the sea? It's not as dramatic a fate as being overrun by a rising tide, perhaps, but in its own way it's just as chilling. •

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