The Republic of Maldives is Sinking

Rising sea levels threaten the existence of the low lying country of the Maldives

The Republic of Maldives is Sinking

The Maldives is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, comprised of 1,200 coral islands in 26 atolls over a 35,000 sq. mi area. The highest point in the country is only two feet above sea level, and 80% of the country’s land is less than three feet below sea level. [1] A modest increase in sea levels could submerge the entire country. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report noting that sea levels could rise as much as 100 centimeters by the year 2100, and that a 90 centimeter rise would cover 85% of Malè, the capital city/island of the Maldives. [2]

While it is possible for some coral islands to naturally reform and adjust to increases in sea level, the Maldivian capital city of Malè is not one of them due to a number of rigid systems built up over the years to protect against storms. [3] Malè represents about a third of the entire population of the country. [4]

There are a number of other issues relating to sea level rise that threaten the long-term survival of the country [5]:

  • Tourism represents about a third of the country’s GDP, and 45% of tourism resorts experienced severe beach erosion in 2006.
  • The fresh water resources of the Maldives are also threatened by rising sea levels. Many of the country’s islands have pockets of underground fresh water; as sea water levels rise, these pockets are contaminated.
  • Finally, the country’s islands are protected by coral reefs. As ocean temperatures rise, the coral reefs themselves can begin to die off. These reefs protect the islands, and are core to the country’s tourism and fishery industries.


What is the country doing about it today?

The Maldivian government released a detailed report (National Adaptation Program of Action) that outlines in detail the major threats to the country resulting from climate change and proposals for how to address these. [5]

After consulting with a number of international advisors and experts, the report authors came up with twelve priority projects to address the upcoming climate change issues. The top three are as follows [5]:

  • Integration of Future Climate Change Scenarios in the Safer Island Strategy to Adapt Sea Level Rise and Extreme Weather Risks Associated with Climate Change
  • Coastal Protection of Safer Islands to Reduce the Risk from Sea Induced Flooding and Predicted Sea Level Rise
  • Coastal Protection of Male’ International Airport to Reduce the Risk from Sea Induced Flooding and Predicted Sea Level Rise

The Maldives is also quite involved with international climate forums and the global dialog on the subject. The country as also committed to becoming the first carbon neutral country by 2020 (despite contributing a negligible amount of carbon emissions today). [6]


What other steps could the current government take?

The current policy of investing in infrastructure to keep the island nation underwater don’t capture a plan announced by former president Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed advocated for assembling a fund that would be used to buy land on other countries unaffected by rising sea levels for displaced Maldivians to relocate. [7]

The former president established a sovereign wealth fund, funded primarily by tourism revenue, that would be used to fund relocation of the country’s residents that would be displaced by rising sea levels. In theory, it would eventually be able to relocate the entire population of the country. [7] Nasheed expressed interest in a number of countries – Sri Lanka and India due to cultural similarities, and Australia due to the vast amount of open space on the continent. [8]

Nasheed fell from power when he resigned in the aftermath of a political crisis in 2012, and his successor dropped the relocation plan. The current head of state, president Abdulla Yameen, is doubling down on the agenda outlined above, and working to reclaim sunken islands. [9] I believe that this is a short-term solution to a long-term issue, and that the relocation fund should continue to be built up.

How can larger countries that have more influence on international climate change issues help support low lying island nations like the Maldives? Will these small islands be able to survive at the current pace without their help?

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Works Cited

[1] The World Bank, “Climate Change in the Maldives,” April 2010. [Online]. Available:
[2] IPCC, “Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” Cambridge University Press, 2001.
[3] K. Warne, “Will Pacific Island Nations Disappear as Seas Rise? Maybe Not,” National Geographic, 15 February 2015.
[4] Maldives National Bureau of Statistics, “Table: Total Maldivian Population by Sex and Locality (Atolls), 2014,” [Online]. Available:
[5] Republic of Maldives, “National Adaptation Program of Action,” Ministry of Environment, Energy, and Water, 2007.
[6] A. Doyle, “Maldives takes step to “carbon neutrality” by 2020,” Reuters, 25 November 2010.
[7] B. Doherty, “Climate change castaways consider move to Australia,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January 2012.
[8] R. Ramesh, “Paradise almost lost: Maldives seek to buy a new homeland,” The Guardian, 9 November 2008.
[9] N. J. Dauenhauer, “On front line of climate change as Maldives fights rising seas,” New Scientist, 20 March 2017.



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Student comments on The Republic of Maldives is Sinking

  1. It is horrible to see how such a beautiful country suffers and faces an uncertain future because of climate trends that they have no influence over. However, while the former president Nasheed was a great advocate for the Maldives on an international stage (he founded the Climate Vulnerable Fund – later to be known as the Vulnerable Twenty (V20) group of nations, recent political developments have certainly lost some focus.

    The relief programs targeted at providing new locations for inhabitants to live, neglecting all standards of sustainability ( The government takes money from Chinese development banks (instead of using funds available from the several climate funds), begging the question if the focus is really on long-term survival or instead on economic development for tourism.

    In general, the United Nations should feel obliged to commit to concrete and measurable goals of emissions that would keep the temperature increase at below 2 degree Celsius. However, at the moment I believe there is little hope given the beliefs of the current US administration and the fact that a country with a population of less than half a million inhabitants does not play a significant role in world politcs, regardless of how beautiful the beaches are.

  2. It is certainly a tragedy that countries like the Maldives have hardly contributed to climate change, yet are the most effected by it. Therefore, I do believe that developed countries (who have contributed significantly to climate change) have an obligation to help these badly effected nations.

    One possible way that wealthier and larger countries could help the Maldives is to invest or donate to an infrastructure fund that could build dykes around the largest islands (i.e. Male). Being below sea level doesn’t mean that the country will disappear. For example, about one third of the Netherlands is below sea level, with one point even being twenty-two feet below sea level! [1] Therefore, if this dyke technology could be introduced to the Maldives before the sea rises too much, it could help alleviate their impending problems. However, tourism would certainly be hit if all the beaches were enclosed by dykes!

    Additionally, there was a law passed in the Maldives in 2015 that legalized foreign ownership of land as long as 70% of the land was reclaimed from the ocean. [2] If the Maldives could attract major resorts to build properties throughout their country, it could increase the amount of reclaimed land to buffer the sea level rise, and would help the Maldives attract the attention of citizens from more developed nations.

    However, without the help of foreign investment or charity, I think that the Maldives will be affected very harshly by climate change, and may be entirely submerged by the end of the century.

    [1] M., J. (2017). Is the Netherlands below sea level?. [online] Netherlands Tourism. Available at: [Accessed 26 Nov. 2017].

    [2] (2017). The World Factbook — Central Intelligence Agency. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Nov. 2017].

  3. Fascinating content, JDW. Sadly, this is not even the first place that has succumbed to climate change – there have already been climate change refugees in Alaska, as one city was forced to relocate due to rising sea levels [1]. Obviously, this case is simpler as they were able to relocate to their own country, and even their home state, but this impact is already very real, and I agree with other commenters that action is unlikely to be taken anytime soon given the current state of international politics.

    I wonder if the Maldives has contingency plans for if and when their island is no longer able to exist. Will they be able to find land to relocate to en masse, and if they do, will they maintain sovereignty or become a territory of another nation? What will the international relations implications be? Which country is willing to give up part of their land to citizens of another country?

    [1] Mele, Christopher and Daniel Victor. “Reeling from effects of climate change, Alaskan village votes to relocate.” The New York Times. Accessed November 30, 2017.

  4. Very difficult and complicated issue – and certainly unequitable.

    Nasheed’s intent to purchase land from other countries not impacted by rising sea levels in order to relocate displaced residence can lead to numerous political complications: How will tax revenue be allocation to the local government providing for these residence? How can the displayed residents exercise influence over the area that they are living in? Will the residents be willing to relocate? Given the numerous complications with this strategy, it would be difficult to successfully implement it. There are countries (e.g., the Netherlands) that have been battling rising sea levels for many years through infrastructure investment. Diverting the funds towards such strategies may potentially represent a more effective way of preventing residence from being displaced.

  5. Thank you for your article. I really think it is eyeopening and at the same time made me frightened. Climate change is always a discussion topic at large international organizations and we hear about it all the time. However, we feel that the impact is so far into the future or it might not affect me significantly. Your article gave me a perspective that climate change is real and there are people whose lives are on the line.

    I think it is the responsibility of the humanity as a whole to take action on climate change and to support low lying island nations like the Maldives. Intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations should take the lead to address this issue as soon as possible. To your question, these small islands nation and their relatively small GDPs would put a constraint on investment necessary to survive through such big problem. Personally, I agreed with Nasheed’s proposal on relocation the people as possibly the nation onto a more secure land i.e. India, Sri Lanka, Australia. Though the important question here is how the nation will hold its sovereignty and co-exist on others’ territory.

    Larger countries like Saudi Arabia already took a creative way to help the Maldivians. Saudi King agreed to lease Faafu islands, injecting investment into the Maldives to fight with rising sea level[1].

    [1] Vidal, John. “Maldives plan to embrace mass tourism sparks criticism and outrage,” The Guardian. Accessed December 1, 2017

  6. It is devastating to know we are under a threat to potentially lose such a beautiful country. I found this case extremely difficult to reconcile the best approach to save Maldives. The main reason is that short-term solutions such as reclamation of some islands as you mentioned in the article could be detrimental to the long-term sustainability as it causes some damages to the existing lands.

    What would be the contingency plan for the Maldives if the islands cannot exist and allow people to stay anymore? Also, what would happen to the country’s residents if the relocation program is not accepted by the residents? Most importantly, what are the sustainable solutions so we do not have to see any islands facing the similar problems and how is the country going to fund it?

  7. The most glaring concern I took from this article is how does everyone NOT know about this? For those who want to challenge climate change, this island only needs to be shown. The inability for this story to reach more and more eyeballs is shocking because this is a slow-burning natural disaster. Simply put, just because this is not as urgent as Hurricane or Tsunami relief doesn’t mean that the results are going to be any different. We could actually prevent a natural disaster from happening before it does. A novel idea for most politicians and world leaders I’m sure.

  8. Thank you for bringing up this important topic JDW. As you state, the government of theMaldives needs to be action oriented in its approach, outlining a range of measures to solve this issue. It is, however, apparent that the country is not adequately prepared for the worst case situation, whereby the entire population will need to be relocated. I would urge the government to reconsider the relocation fund, raising money from tourists. For example, the government could increase airport taxes, marginally increasing flight prices.In 2016 there were just under 4 million international passengers travelling into the Maldives [1]. A $10 excess ‘relocation fund tax’ charge per flight with 8 million international flights per year (assuming each tourist travels in and out of the country within the year) would build up an extra $80m per year for the relocation fund. By the time that national population relocation is required (c.80 years time as per your essay), this will have built up an extra $6.4B. This and other forms of marginal increases to tourist taxes (e.g. hotel bookings) would rapidly help the country build up the relocation fund.

    [1] Statistical Pocket Book of Maldives:

  9. Climate change is real and its implications are grave. For most of the world, the consequences of carbon emissions seem to be a distant afterthought, perhaps statistics that are decades away from causing any real harm to their daily lives. For the citizens of the Maldives, these consequences are a reality.

    You ask a thought provoking question: what can large countries do? The key thing is raise awareness that real people are being harmed and track progress toward claims made in the Paris Agreement, on a daily or monthly basis. The other thing that large countries can provide is land for the islanders to resettle on. It might too late for the citizens of the Maldives, but their legacy can continue on elsewhere in the world.

    I think it’s near impossible that these small islands will be able to survive. Similar to the Maldives, it seems like Venice and Amsterdam will follow [1]. There have been no drastic changes made by major carbon polluters that can reduce rising sea levels dramatically and the United States has pulled out of the Paris agreement [2]. The only thing we can hope for is that the fate of these smaller islands and cities remains a stark reminder for humanity, that many lives will be lost and lands squandered if we don’t change our ways soon.


    [1] Michael, T. (2017). Rising sea levels mean these cities and even entire countries could disappear beneath the waves within decades. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017].

    [2] Shear, M. (2017). Trump Will Withdraw U.S. From Paris Climate Agreement. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2017].

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