A tourist's paradise seeks insurance against global warming.
THE Maldives will begin to divert a portion of the country's billion-dollar annual tourist revenue into buying a new homeland as an insurance policy against climate change that threatens to turn the nation's 300,000 islanders into environmental refugees. Australia is on the shopping list.
Mohamed Nasheed, who officially takes power today in the island's capital, Male, said the chain of 1200 islands and coral atolls south of India is likely to disappear if climate change continues to raise sea levels.
The UN forecasts that the seas are likely to rise by up to 59 centimetres by 2100, due to global warming. Most parts of the Maldives are just 1.5 metres above water.
President Nasheed said even a small rise in sea levels would inundate large parts of the archipelago.
"We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere," said Mr Nasheed, also known as Anni. "It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. After all, the Israelis (began by buying) land in Palestine."
The President, a human rights activist who swept to power in elections last month, said he had already broached the idea with a number of countries and found them to be "receptive".
He said Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climate. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land.
"We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades," he said.
Environmentalists say the issue raises the question of what rights citizens have if their homeland no longer exists. "It's an unprecedented wake-up call," said Tom Picken, head of international climate change at Friends of the Earth. "The Maldives is left to fend for itself. It is a victim of climate change caused by rich countries."
Mr Nasheed said he intended to create a "sovereign wealth fund" from the dollars generated by "importing tourists", in the way Arab states have done by "exporting oil".
The 41-year-old is a rising star in Asia, where he has been compared to Nelson Mandela. Before taking office the new President asked Maldivians to move forward without rancour or retribution — an astonishing call, given that Mr Nasheed had gone to jail 23 times, been tortured and spent 18 months in solitary confinement.
"We have the latitude to remove anyone from government and prosecute them," he said. "But I have forgiven my jailers, the torturers. They were following orders."
The Maldives is one of the few Muslim nations to make a relatively peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy. The "sultanate" of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was an iron-fisted regime that ran the police, army and courts and banned rival parties.
Male is the world's most densely populated town: 100,000 people cram into two square kilometres. "We have unemployment at 20%. Heroin has become a serious social issue, with crime rising," Mr Nasheed said, adding that the extra social spending he pledged would cost an immediate $243 million.
He said that without a bail-out from the international community, the future of the Maldives as a democracy would be in doubt.