Edge of Disaster: The Climate Change Emergency Facing the Atoll Countries

Video | 12 December 2019

On Guraidhoo Island in the Maldives, the coastline is vanishing by the year, threatening the businesses and livelihoods of those who live here, and illustrating the existential threat posed by climate change. This is the crisis facing the Maldives and the other atoll countries: Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu. A high-level conference organized by ADB discussed the problem and what action needs to happen to save the atoll countries. 

Transcript

The best part of my job is meeting with tourists. Especially tourists from other countries.

Mohamed Solih is the owner of a bed and breakfast on Guraidhoo Island, one of almost 1,200 that make up the nation of the Maldives. 

While the business has earned a first-class rating and is popular with tourists from Europe, Mohamed faces a constant threat from the changing climate and encroaching water.

"I've noticed that tidal surges have been more common in recent years. And especially in the past year."

On the other side of this island, the situation is even more dire.

Accelerating sand erosion has toppled trees and in just four years has shrunk this coastline by about 15 meters. 

Ibrahim Shaleez, Guraidhoo Island Council

"You can see that this tree - it's gone. It's like only now you can see the roots. Actually just a few years before there was sand like here. And sometimes when the waves come in now, they come in like this. And when it is big waves, all the houses are affected. And the beach is gone. There were so many trees on this beach and it's all gone."

This is the grim reality for people and businesses here in the Maldives and the other three atoll nations—Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu. 

For these countries, their size, geography and elevation—a little over one-meter—make climate change and rising ocean levels an existential threat.

Ben Graham, Asian Development Bank

"Everyone is going to be impacted by climate change but these four countries are already feeling the effects. And these are big impacts that they’re already feeling. Those will only get worse over time. And so if they can get some attention for their accelerated adaptation efforts, that’s important to do right now."

To confront and work on solutions to the issues facing the atoll countries, the Asian Development Bank hosted a high-level conference in Maldives to discuss ways of combating and building resilience against climate change and rising ocean levels. 

The atoll representatives delivered a clear message: that they have a natural right to remain in their islands and not be forcibly relocated due to climate change.

Nese Itusao Conway, Office of the Prime Minister, Tuvalu

"There’s no Plan B – we’re not moving away from our island. We are here to stay."

Hussain Rasheed Ahmed, Minister of Environment, Maldives

"Migration to a foreign land is not an option for us. We as a people, we are determined to stay here."

They were also clear on the need to accelerate adaptation and build resilience if they are to protect and ultimately save their countries.

Tina Stege, Climate Change Envoy, Marshall Islands

"We need to really think beyond just the projects. And think long-term: what is our long-term plan for resilience? Not project by project actually, but resilience that translates to survival in our country and continued existence in our country."

Teburoro Tito, Ambassador to the US and UN, Kiribati

"We are in an emergency situation. We are more or less on a tipping point in terms of where we live, so the day-to-day living conditions of the people is very much at stake."

The conference brought experts from around the world who outlined how the development and global community can help the atoll countries. 

John Tanzer, Director, Global Marine Programme, WWF International

"Given the urgency and given the scale of the problems, you need to build political will at the highest levels as well as government levels. As well as with the public, so I include the public in that political will building. And then you need to unlock the resources. It does require investment to get us from a situation where the oceans are in decline, in crisis, to one where it’s a sustainable situation, where these communities have a future."

The atolls agreed on a set of priorities, including the need to work more closely to raise awareness on their exceptional circumstances, and to accelerate adaptation and resilience planning and investments. They also discussed continued collaboration with ADB, which is already spearheading a range of actions to help the atoll countries. 

ADB has committed 5-billion dollars to an action plan for healthy oceans focusing on sustainable tourism and fisheries, protecting marine ecosystems, cutting down on pollution, and sustainable coastal infrastructure. 

ADB is also investing heavily in climate change adaptation projects such as water supplies, sanitation, flood control, and transport and energy infrastructure. 

But all here agree the most effective solution will only come from a united global partnership. 

For Mohamed Solih and the people on Guraidhoo Island, the action needs to happen now. 

"I have no intention of leaving, but if there is no other choice because of climate change then I will have to leave. And that will be heartbreaking."