Photograph by Mohamed Seeneen

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Dire state: The president of the Maldives publicizes climate change.

Photograph by Mohamed Seeneen


As the World Sinks

Tales from the Frontier

From the March 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

The Maldives are disappearing into the ocean. So says President Mohamed Nasheed, who in October 2009 strapped on scuba gear and held a cabinet meeting underwater with 13 government officials. They hoped to call global attention to climate change, which Nasheed considers a grave national security threat to this paradise of some 1,200 coral islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean.

One year later, I flew halfway around the world to join President Nasheed, climate scientists, renewable energy experts, marine conservationists, and sustainable tourism advocates gathered on the eco-resort island of Soneva Fushi to help save the country and perhaps the rest of the planet. (The irony of riding a carbon-spewing plane to attend a conference on how to reduce carbon emissions isn’t lost on me. More on that later.)

Educated in maritime studies, 43-year-old Nasheed is dashing, well-informed, and frequently compared to Barack Obama, who took office around the same time. Nasheed had boldly announced plans for the Maldives to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country. He spoke to me in the shade of a palm tree just a few feet from the warm, clear ocean that one day might swallow his nation. I asked him if he really thought it was possible for the Maldives to generate all its power from wind, solar, and tidal energy.

“Absolutely,” Nasheed said. “We no longer have the luxury of debate. For us, climate change is real. We are already relocating people from 16 islands affected by rising seas to other areas of our country.” While the ocean hasn’t yet claimed any island in the archipelago, rising sea levels have caused salinization and depletion of the freshwater supplies on some, forcing localized evacuations.

Mark Lynas, Nasheed’s climate change adviser, added: “We can generate the alternative energy to power this country by 2019.” But Lynas, a research associate at Oxford University and author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, offered an apocalyptic warning. “If we fail to act now, there will not be any living coral in the Maldives within 30 years, and the Maldives themselves will be wiped off the map by the end of this century.”

Tourism, done right, can help save the Maldives from a watery end. On the front lines of this battle is Sonu Shivadasani, the founder of Six Senses, a company that operates high-end resorts and spas under a banner of “intelligent luxury.” Two of them, Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili, are in the Maldives. The notion that sustainable tourism can be a catalyst for a greener future is not new thinking, but Shivadasani is determined to take it to a higher level: resorts that are not just carbon neutral but carbon negative—removing more CO2 emissions from the atmosphere than they release into it.

“We have designed this to be a biodegradable resort,” the eco-hotelier explained as we dined on line-caught jack fish poached in a ginger-lemongrass sauce in Soneva Fushi’s treetop restaurant, reached by a rope bridge that hangs above the organic garden that supplies the kitchen. He walked me through the operations, ranging from production of biochar—a charcoal substance created from natural waste that removes CO2 from the atmosphere in a process known as carbon sequestration—to serving only sustainable seafood according to Marine Stewardship Council guidelines.

After three days of my listening tour, it was apparent that the knowledge and most of the technology exist for the Maldives to become the exemplar of a fossil-fuel-free country, albeit a tiny one. But the air travel question nagged at me. Big jets bring tourists to these islands, and small seaplanes ferry them from the capital of Male on to some 90 resorts spread across 550 miles of dark blue ocean and light turquoise atolls. On the eight-seater plane taking me to my next island stop—Soneva Gili in North Male Atoll—I sat beside the only local on the flight, the country’s vice president, Mohammed Waheed. I asked him point-blank about how they will deal with all the flying, and if eco-friendly Maldives is only for the well-heeled jet set.

“The global aviation industry is already doing advanced research on flying with renewable fuel,” he said. “But they will not be ready to meet our 2019 deadline. So we will have to offset the carbon emissions of interisland flights until there is a better alternative. Our low-volume, high-end tourism strategy maximizes economic income and minimizes the environmental footprint.” He noted that their strategy proved risky during the worldwide recession and that the country is now permitting affordable guesthouses. “This won’t change our commitment to going carbon neutral. But it will generate more income for local communities,” Waheed said.

The politician’s deft deflection of my questions only highlighted the obvious: So far, there are only partial solutions, particularly to the issue of long-distance air travel. Yet tourism provides the most compelling justification for governments to protect their natural environment.

On my last morning, I donned a mask and fins to swim among giant manta rays—some with 20-foot wingspans—feeding on plankton less than a mile from the large wood-and-thatch villas on Soneva Gili. The mantas gathered at a coral “cleaning station,” where wrasses, gobies, and other small fish picked the rays’ gills clean.

It was an underwater Serengeti with white-tipped sharks, hawksbill sea turtles, and schools of powder-blue surgeonfish swimming by. This shallow-sea encounter brought to mind Lynas’s grim prediction that in 30 years there could be no living coral here. I calculated what that would mean for the marine life surrounding me, whose survival depends on the reef.

Something the president of this imperiled country said came back to me: “We do not think that the Maldives going carbon neutral will save the planet, but we will be able to say we have done our part.” His clear challenge to the rest of the world: Do yours.

Editor at large Costas Christ writes about sustainability and tourism issues. E-mail your comments to