Disaster Management, Environment, Human Rights

“Don’t be stupid! The climate deed is done, so let’s move on to solutions!” – President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

The President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives in an exclusive interview with Nalaka Gunawardene

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) and President Mohamed Nasheed in Male, Aug 2009
Nalaka Gunawardene (left) and President Mohamed Nasheed in Male, Aug 2009

The Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives is the smallest country in Asia – it packs 325,000 people into a land area just under 300 square kilometres. With an average ground level of 1.5 metres (5 feet) above sea level, it is also the lowest country on the planet, and now on the frontline of climate change impact. As the polar ice melts and sea levels rise, these and other low-lying islands will be the first to go under water. Coastal erosion, salt intrusion and extreme weather events will make many islands uninhabitable much sooner.

Since he became the first democratically elected head of state of the Maldives in November 2008, President Mohamed Nasheed has been an outspoken and pragmatic voice speaking on behalf of his and other small island states, grouped under the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). President Nasheed sees climate change both as a human rights issue and a national security threat.

During the current run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009, he has been urging the world to defend the ‘frontline states’. He made this call at the 64th United Nations General Assembly, the UN Summit on Climate Change and other high level gatherings around the world.

In late August 2009, President Nasheed filmed an exclusive interview with TVE Asia Pacific‘s Director Nalaka Gunawardene. In this wide-ranging interview, recorded in the Maldivian capital Malé before he headed out to New York for the UN meetings, he shared his concerns and visions for his island nation. He emphasized how democracy and good governance are vital for countries adapting to climate change. His message to the world leaders: Don’t be stupid! The deed is done, so instead of finger pointing, let’s see how we can cope with impacts.

TVE Asia Pacific has produced a short film based on the interview, titled Small Islands – Big Impact (6 mins). Being released in time for the International Day of Climate Action, 24 October 2009, it is directed by Nalaka Gunawardene, who as a science writer has been covering the Maldives and climate change for 20 years.

This exchange is derived from the TV interview you can watch in full above.

Nalaka Gunawardene: How would you describe your country’s vulnerability to climate change impacts, current and anticipated?

President Mohamed Nasheed: We live on 200 islands, and the highest point on any of these islands is just 1.5 metres (five feet) above sea level. If you run any of these scenarios of sea level rise, you will very much realise that within no time, we would be under water. This is a very real threat to us. Even now, some islanders are having to move homes from where they lived to elsewhere. There are serious coastal erosion problems. So that’s all very real — and it’s happening now!

Also, during the last four or five years, our fish catch has really come down quite substantially. Part of the reason, I am told, is that the oceans are warmer, and therefore, the tuna is not surfacing enough. We fish one by one. To do that, the school of fish has to come up. Because we do not pursine (net fishing): our fishermen are at a loss for maintaining the level of catch that they have had in the past. Fisheries is our main livelihood and the islands are where we live on…if the islands are under threat, and if fisheries are going down, we will have so many difficulties.

And tourism is our other main economic activity. If climate change affects the coral reef, it is going to impact and pose many challenges for the tourism industry as well. So basically, we have challenges all throughout…

President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives
President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

Nalaka: Yours is the smallest independent state in Asia, and your contribution to the (global warming) problem has been miniscule. How do the Maldivian people feel about being on the frontline of impact?

President Nasheed: Of course, the injustice of it all is very much felt…and specially when people know more about why these climate changes are happening, they understand that it has nothing to do with them…that they didn’t do any of these things.

But then again, what we have always maintained is that there is no point in pointing fingers (now). The deed is done, it’s going to happen — so let’s move on and see how we may be able to not only mitigate, but also adapt to the changing situation.

Nalaka: Is that the kind of pragmatic approach that you adopt?

President Nasheed: Well, there is no good that we can achieve now by saying that this was someone else’s doing. The deed is done, whoever who did it! So however much we go on talking about it, it cannot change the situation. But then, those who can assist others should be assisting others, in mitigation, adaptation, financially, technical assistance or any other form of other assistance…if we can all get together and see how we may be able to overcome these issues, that’s where the solutions lie.

Nalaka: You have argued that climate change is not just an environmental problem but also a global human rights issue. Can you elaborate?

President Nasheed: It definitely is. In our minds, it is the right to life. We will die if this goes on, and therefore, we have a fundamental right for life. If that is challenged, we have to link it be a human rights issue, and not just an environmental issue. Also, this not only a human rights issue but also a security issue. There will be many further challenges because of climate change affecting the relationship between nations. If we are going to have our resources coming down, or if the resource levels we use are disrupted, that it is bound to bring differences between people. So this can very easily become a security issue.
We are one of the frontline states of a security threat, and we feel that countries should be defending frontline states. If you cannot defend the Maldives today, you will not be able to defend yourself tomorrow.

Nalaka: You have drawn a parallel with Poland during World War Two?

President Nasheed: For me, it’s very obvious. If Europeans thought it was important to defend Poland in the 1930s, then it is important to defend the Maldives now. If it was important to defend Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, then it is important to defend the Maldives now. Here is an issue that is growing, and we would be much, much better off if we can nip it in the bud.

Nalaka: You have also made an important link between consolidating democracy and adapting to climate change. I find it a refreshingly new perspective. Can you expand on that?

President Nasheed: Traditionally, we’ve always thought that adaptation (living with climate change) represents physical structures – revetments, embankments, breakwaters, etc. But we feel that the most important adaptation issue is good governance and, therefore, consolidating democracy is very important for adaptation. When climate changes, and when you start feeling the actual impacts of it, you will be wasting all the resources without a proper governance system.

We have examples to this. The previous government started adaptation programmes in some 160 islands and out of that, more than 60 – 70 per cent of the projects are not moving, simply because of governance issues. Either you gave the contract to the wrong person, or you started doing a whole variety of works without proper consultations with the people, and then we’re finding difficulties. So we feel that democracy and good governance is very, very important for adaptation. If you are to make good use of the resources you have, you have to be able to have a proper governance system.

Nalaka: But in democracies, politicians are constantly under public pressure and generally think more in terms of the next election than the next generation. How do you balance these two?

President Nasheed: The people have to be informed well, that what they want for the next election is proper mitigation and adaptation and so that is where the balance comes. The benevolent dictator is not there. And to assume that a benevolent dictator would save you from climate change…I’m sorry, that hasn’t really quite happened since Plato — or even while he was around. I don’t think your benevolent dictator would be able to come up with adaptation measures. Rather, it’s the people who decide that they have to be saved and they pressure or they raise their points with the rulers and the politicians. Then, if competitive politics decide issues, you’re bound to come out with what the people want.

Nalaka: You announced in March 2009 that the Maldives would become carbon-neutral in 10 years’ time. What is your vision for achieving this?

President Nasheed: Most importantly, because it makes economic sense. Renewable energy costs a little bit more in terms of capital expenditure but in terms of recurrent expenditure, it’s far, far more economical. So we feel that while we have all these resources – the sun, the ocean currents and the wind – we shouldn’t be importing energy or producing electricity and energy through imported fossil fuels. If we can make use of our own resources — the sun, streams and the ocean currents — we would be much better off. These economic models are more feasible than the fossil fuels based electricity-generating models.

Yes, we understand that our becoming carbon-neutral will not save the world, but at least we would have the comfort of knowing that we did the right thing. We hope to be an example to others, and we hope that others also realise that here is a viable scenario and a viable framework of economics to have renewable energy.

Nalaka: Speaking of scenarios, when you assumed office (in November 2008) you launched a “sovereign wealth fund” for relocating your people in another country. Where is it now?

President Nasheed: The fund is now formulated. We will have to save for a rainy day. And during the worst case scenarios, as responsible politicians, we should be able to tap funds and money set aside for a rainy day. So the fund is going on, and hopefully we will have something when the going gets very bad….

Nalaka: Finally, what is your key message to Copenhagen Climate Summit?

President Nasheed: Well, in a nutshell, I’d like to say what has already been said: ‘Don’t be stupid!‘. Going on and on about who did it is not going to save us. This is the time to realise that the deed is done. So let’s see how we may be able to proceed from here. If you have some money, please give it to someone who doesn’t have. If you have technology, please give it to someone who doesn’t have that technology. There is no point pointing fingers.

Note: ‘Small Islands, Big Impact’ was produced by TVE Asia Pacific in collaboration with COM+ Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development. It is available free for broadcast, educational and online use without copyright restrictions – please contact: [email protected]. More on the making of this film is found on Nalaka’s personal blog, http://movingimages.wordpress.com