Republic of Maldives
Because the Republic of Maldives is formed from coral sands and sits very close to sea level, it is likely to suffer heavy impacts as a result of sea-level rise. The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean—although unrelated to climate change—highlighted the vulnerability of the country's infrastructure, such as the Malé Airport, to inundation.1
As the flattest country on Earth, the Republic of Maldives is extremely vulnerable to rising sea level and faces the very real possibility that the majority of its land area will be underwater by the end of this century.4,9,16,18 Today, the white sand beaches and extensive coral reefs of the Maldives' 1,190 islands draw more than 600,000 tourists annually.2
Known for its white sand beaches and extensive coral reefs, the Republic of Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, consists of 1,190 islands and draws over 600,000 tourists annually.2 With no ground surface higher than 9.9 feet (3 meters), and 80 percent of the land area lying below 3.3 feet (1 meter) above average sea level, the Maldives is the flattest country on Earth. (The Republic of Kiribati, in the Pacific Ocean, is not far behind—see the Kiribati hot spot.3) The lack of topography in the Maldives makes it one of the nations most vulnerable to rising sea level and coastal flooding.4
Some 191 of the country's 358 inhabited islands have fewer than 5,000 people,5 and about one–third of all residents live in the capital city of Malé on North Malé Atoll. With roughly 104,000 people residing within 2.2 square miles (5.8 square kilometers), North Malé Atoll encompasses some of the most densely populated islands in the world.6
Housing and critical infrastructure in the Maldives, including five airports and 128 harbors, are concentrated along coastlines. The country's two international airports, for example—critical components of the tourism sector—lie within 165 feet (50 meters) of the coastline.5
Since the 1950s, sea level in and around the Maldives has been rising at a rate of 0.03–0.06 inches (0.8–1.6 millimeters) per year.7,8,9 Because of the Maldivian topography, small changes in sea level translate into extensive land inundation.
Rising seas pose a looming threat to homes and industries near the coast. Even small increases in sea level are likely to worsen existing environmental challenges on the islands, such as persistent flooding from waves often generated by storms far away. More than 90 of the inhabited Maldives islands experience annual floods.5 In 2007, a series of swells forced the evacuation of more than 1,600 people from their homes and damaged more than 500 housing units.10
Sea level rise is also likely to place added stress on the Maldives' already scarce freshwater resources. While the nation provides drinking water to about 87 percent of the population by collecting rainwater, groundwater is required for non–drinking purposes, and for drinking water during dry season months.11 Groundwater aquifers on the islands are shallow, and high extraction levels have made them vulnerable to inundation by saltwater.11
Only 11 percent of the Maldives' inhabited islands had potable groundwater before the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.10,11 Transient seawater inundation during that event contaminated these groundwater supplies as well as soils.
Part of a Larger Pattern
Sea level has been rising by 0.07 inch (1.7 millimeters) per year since 1950, on a globally averaged basis.12 However, an average rise of 0.13 inch (3.3 millimeters) per year from 1993 to 2008 suggests that the pace of sea level rise is accelerating.13
Sea level rise is attributed to two main processes. First, human–induced warming of the oceans, stemming from our heat–trapping emissions, causes seawater to expand. This thermal expansion has contributed about 25 percent of the long–term rise in sea level over the latter half of the 20th century.14 However, this percentage is expected to fall as the second source of sea level rise—shrinking glaciers and ice sheets worldwide—adds a growing percentage of water to the oceans.7,15
What the Future Holds
After looking closely at the volume of water that could come from glacial and ice sheet melt by the year 2100, scientists estimate that sea level could rise 2.6 feet (80 centimeters)—and that as much as 6.6 feet (2 meters) is possible, depending on the pace at which heat–trapping emissions are released.16
Given mid–level scenarios for those emissions,17 the Maldives is projected to experience sea–level rise on the order of 1.5 feet (50 centimeters) by around 2100.4,9 The country would lose 77 percent of its land area by the end of the century.4 If sea level were to rise by 3.3 feet (1 meter) and the Maldives did not pursue further coastal protection measures, it would be nearly completely inundated by about 2085.18
The Maldivian Ministry of Home Affairs, Housing and Environment has identified potential measures to help the country adapt to rising seas. These include protecting groundwater and increasing rainwater harvesting, as well as increasing the elevation of critical infrastructure.19
Migration is also a potential solution for Maldivians. In November 2008, the president announced the country's interest in buying a new homeland,20 though this approach would come at a high price, both financially and culturally.