The Maldive Islands are a string of tropical beauty southwest of India, stretching for over 500 miles. The ridge that forms the base of the country’s 22 atolls was built up from the ocean floor in much the same way as were the Hawaiian Islands. A hotspot that now rests far away under Reunion Island, east of Madagascar, fed enough basalt to the surface to create quite a number of islands and island chains over time. Like the Hawaiian chain, they sprouted in a series as the overlying geologic plate slowly moved past the hotspot. It formed the Laccadive-Chagos Ridge, which also includes the Lakshadweep islands north of the Maldives, and the Chagos Archipelago south of it. The hotspot went dormant for a long time before producing Mauritius and Reunion islands far to the south.
The hotspot’s work of developing of the Laccadive-Chagos Ridge gave corals something to stick to, and grow on, and as erosion and subsidence pushed the basaltic rock under the waves, those corals kept on growing. As described in a recent Geo-Joint, the fringing reefs that hug a volcanic island become barrier reefs as the island sinks away, leaving a ring-like necklace of coral islands forming an atoll, and a lagoon. The Maldives are a chain of these atolls, with a total of about 1,200 islands of which only around 200 are inhabited. There may be fewer of them inhabited in the years to come, because the highest point in the Maldives is not quite eight feet above sea level, and the overall average elevation is closer to four feet. That average is the lowest for any country in the world.
The plight of the Maldives may have crossed your radar, since the nation is in the news as one of the most threatened on the planet. The sea-level rise of a warming world is having an immediate effect on their survival. It doesn’t help that some of their precious sand is used for construction, or that parrotfish and other sand-making fish are hunted for food. Such activities can only hasten the Maldives’ disappearance. There is some evidence from studies in the Pacific Ocean tropics that show the elevation of certain atolls has risen along with rapidly heightening ocean levels. This may have resulted in part from energetic, higher wave action breaking off more coral reef material, and tossing it up onto beaches to create more sand. But this natural process relies on the continued vigorous growth of coral—a real challenge when higher ocean temperatures are causing coral bleaching and massive die-offs, and increased ocean water acidity stymies their very formation.
With the Maldives as the poster child for climate-driven peril, the government there has been vocal in its efforts to get the major industrialized nations of the world to commit to, and honor, their pledges to cut back on greenhouse gases. However, hoping for urgent action by others is an unreliable strategy, so the country has gone looking for its own solutions to keep Maldivians’ heads above water. There was talk of buying land in other countries as a refuge for those inundated by a rising sea, but a more self-reliant plan has since been developed, and is being implemented.
It boils down to this: Why move when you can build an addition? That is what the Maldives have done, with a project called Hulhumale, adjacent to the capital island of Male. By siphoning sand from the surrounding lagoon, the level of a shallow reef was built up to around nine feet in height. The material was shored up with a barrier wall, and an entire island was created in surprisingly little time—about six weeks. Upon this new island they proceded to build the City of Hope, filled with housing, resorts, businesses, and entertainment, that is projected to contain 130,000 people by 2023. Massive projects like this need funding, and the Maldives have a plan for that too. By leasing various islands to resort developers, the Maldives has long financed its country’s coffers. In a deal that dwarfs other such arrangements made previously, Saudi Arabia is angling for a contract that would buy it 99 years of control of Faafu Atoll, for something like $10 billion. The 23 islands there would be developed as luxury tourism and residences for the mega-wealthy of the world, as well as providing space for Saudi oil shipping operations enroute to the Far East. Only a few of the islands in Faafu Atoll are inhabited by Maldivians, but the 4,000 people there would need to be convinced to accept an alternate atoll to live upon elsewhere. The deal is further complicated by geopolitics, given that the Saudi presence would mean a new power with interests in that part of the Indian Ocean, where both India and China also play the chess game of political influence and economic advantage. Maldivians themselves are not fully on board with the government’s plan, fearing the relocations, the undue influence that could come from Saudi Arabia’s massive wealth, and the possibility that political leaders will sell Faafu Atoll outright, rather than simply leasing it.
The solution for the precarious position of the Maldives, then, is itself precarious and full of weighty consequences. Engineering the sea is a challenging task even without the complication of human lives affected by it. The Maldives will have to accept change of one kind or another, as their surroundings react to a new world climate.
Are the Maldives on your bucket list to see before the seas get too high? This wall map of the country, with a detail of North and South Male Atolls, will inspire you to get going. Only available from Maps.com.
caption: A French-made map from 1780 shows the Maldives southwest of India. To their north are the “Isles Laquedives,” or the Laccadive Islands, now known as Lakshadweep.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Rigobert Bonne (Public domain)
caption: The Maldives are a picture-perfect tropical island scene.
source: Pixabay: Unknown (CC 0)
caption: Lightly populated atolls stretch for hundreds of miles.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Frédéric Ducarme (CC by SA 4.0)
caption: Male, the capital island, presents a little bit different picture. Part of the new island of Hulhumale can be seen in the distance, very far left.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Shahee Ilyas (CC0 by SA 3.0)
caption: Development on the artificial island of Hulhumale is similarly packed in, to maximize limited space.
source: Flickr: Easa Shamih (CC by 2.0)
caption: Faafu Atoll, which may be leased or sold to the Saudis for major development. Locator map at top.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Hassan Waheed Aabaadhuge of Thinadhoo Island. Further treatment by Oblivious, Waddey, and Zuru (CC by SA 3.0)