MALDIVES At first sight, the Maldives looks like paradise on earth, with its turquoise atolls, sparkling sand, fish in all the colors of the rainbow, and numerous luxury hotels. Maldives is a democracy with a dynamic young population, and its high-end tourism is currently overtaking famous destinations such as Mauritius and the Seychelles as a top destination. In 2011, the number of Chinese tourists caught up with the number of British visitors: the future looks bright.
But put on your scuba fins and you'll discover a slightly less romantic picture. The reality is a seascape of floating bottles and cans, next to diapers washed out from beach landfills the inhabitants don't really have a choice. The coral is not in good condition either, as oceanographer Fabien Cousteau was able to see while diving there last week. Over-fishing is partly to blame, as it deprived the reef of its cleansing fish. The coral is also recovering from El Niño's last visit in 1998, from a tsunami in 2004, as well as from a general warming of waters.
Marine species can't cope with the wastewater, which is hardly being treated among the 300 inhabited Maldivian islands. Financially speaking, the atolls' nebulous political past is responsible for the country's persistent public debt. The small paradise, 1,000 nautical miles away from any other coast, is following the same path as many other territories going through an ecological and financial crisis. The Maldivian government is adopting a more proactive approach, as it is well aware of the consequences that a decaying ecosystem could have on tourism, which accounts for 40% of the island's GPD.
But another threat has the government concerned: just barely above sea level, the islands risk going under rather sooner than later, as ocean water levels rise from the effects of global warming. It was in the face of this threat that President Mohamed Nasheed, back in 2009, made what was a stunning pledge. He vowed to make the Maldives carbon-neutral within a decade, by moving to wind and solar power. His aim was simple. His goal was to raise general awareness and set an example for other small, less energy-integrated countries to follow.
It has become the core of Mohamed Nasheed's advertised diplomatic speech. In October 2009, a few days before the opening of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the Maldivian President organized an underwater cabinet meeting. His commitment even led to a documentary called "The Island President." The film was recently shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. Last week, Nasheed's archipelago welcomed a panel of international experts. On Monday, the Maldivian President met with France's minister of foreign affairs, Alain Juppé, and spoke in favor of an international agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
The first democratic president after more than 20 years of dictatorship, Nasheed knows that this ecological issue is not going to get him reelected. Polls suggest Maldivian voters care little about the environment. So he decided to underline the importance of carbon-neutral economic growth by calling peoples' attention to the fact that more than 30% of the island's GPD is spent on fossil fuels. Tired of not seeing a sign of the money Europe promised to give, Nasheed is now betting on cheap renewable energies for electricity, which has so far been produced by diesel generators that are accountable for half the carbon dioxide emissions. Other emissions, linked to road or water transport, will be neutralized by progressively introducing electric vehicles. As far as the impact of air transport is concerned, buying carbon credits seems to be the only medium-term solution.
Since last year, things have become clearer. A strategic plan was written down. It is now possible to buy green electricity, and a first photovoltaic contract was signed with the Maldivian hotels and resorts owner Kaimoo. The whole movement is catching momentum as Samoa, Costa Rica and Ethiopia have all joined Norway in the club of countries that pledge to go carbon-neutral before 2030.