The fishermen of the Maldives once referred to their Indian Ocean archipelago as the "land of emergence and submergence." The tidal currents that swirl within the country's atolls regularly shift whole beaches of sand from one side of a cove to another, swallowing and spitting out coral and rock. But by the end of this century, according to various scientific projections, the low-lying Maldives may slip below the waters entirely.
The man hoping to turn the tide is Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed. Since coming to power last year in an election that ended a three-decade-long dictatorship, Nasheed, 42, has championed the fight against climate change. His tiny nation of fewer than 400,000 souls has become a symbol both of what's at stake, and what we can do to change it. Rising sea levels, the consequence of more than a century of industrial growth, may not be the Maldives' fault, but it is the Maldives' problem. What happens to these islands in the coming years, experts suggest, could indicate what will happen to coastal regions across the globe. "We are on the world's front line," Nasheed tells TIME. "And, in a sense, we are its only hope."
In March, his government announced that the Maldives would, within 10 years, become the world's first ever fully carbon-neutral nation with an array of eco-energy projects. Tourists will have to fork out a daily green tax. Environmentalists are hailing Nasheed as a climate-change standard bearer ahead of crucial talks in Copenhagen in December. "We want to shift the global debate from apathy to action," trumpeted the Maldivian President during a speech he delivered to the British House of Commons on July 6.
Time is fast running out. At huge public cost, the previous regime of octogenarian Maumoon Abdul Gayoom erected a system of ugly concrete bulwarks and seawalls around some of the country's major population centers. That project, imposed against the wishes of local islanders, has failed, and in some areas it has accelerated land erosion and killed stretches of once pristine coral reef.
Nasheed says his government will focus on how the archipelago's complex web of natural defenses in particular, those coral reefs may themselves adapt and mitigate the effects of rising waters and changes in ocean temperatures. Reefs helped save the country from the devastating 2005 tsunami by absorbing the brunt of the powerful earthquake-triggered wave. With the backing of the University of Milan, the government will set up a marine-research center. Says Nasheed: "We can show the world how protecting reefs is the first step to protecting man, the trees and the land."
Still, Nasheed knows that the day could come when no trees or land remain. Soon after taking office, he announced a plan for a sovereign wealth fund to finance the purchase of land, perhaps in a larger country such as Australia or India, that might serve as a new home for the entire Maldivian population. Nasheed is clearheaded about the stark reality facing small island nations in the coming century. Buying land is the Maldives' insurance policy. "We don't want to leave," he says. "But we don't want to see our children and grandchildren in tents as refugees either."
'I walk to work every day, rather than take the presidential limousine. It's better for the environment and I can stop and chat to people on the way.' Mohamed Nasheed