Monday, 12 July 2010

Shukuriyaa, Maldives

The last two days in Male' were packed. Sunday, first day of the working week, involved an early visit to Saleem in the Ministry of Housing and Environment. I wasn't quite sure if I would get there since it was pouring rain. It fell steadily for over an hour in the morning and the streets were flooded. I made it, though and had a great meeting with Saleem. He's the permanent undersecretary there and has provided consistency during the transition in government. This ministry is huge. It was formerly 4 separate ministries. It oversees housing, water, energy, environment, sanitation, waste, and until last week, it also oversaw transportation.

Then met with folks from the Climate Change department who have been working tirelessly on the issue. They're not impressed with the international negotiations, and I must say, neither am I. I wish a US President had the balls to stand up and say the things Nashid, and Gayoom before him, have said. When asked what they're looking for, they said, they want policy that is science and equity based. Not a hand out. For people who are accusing the Maldives of being in this for the money, they're willing to put their money where their mouth is. They are working to become carbon neutral by 2020, and while we don't know what that will look like, they're talking a lot about renewable energy. They want to lead the way and set an example as the first carbon neutral nation. The message is if Maldives, with its limited resources can do it, so can the rest of the world, and they're not asking the rest of the world to do something they're not willing to do themselves. While all efforts to reduce emissions are good, the truth is their contribution is so small to begin one (one report I read said 0.01%), that reducing and even eliminating their own emissions will not get us to where science says we need to be to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Sea level rise isn't the only threat to the Maldives. They also potentially face rising temperatures (which can have all sorts of impacts including those agriculture and health related), increased number of coral bleaching events due to high sea surface temperature, fish migration which would leave their fishermen (second largest industry after tourism) without, decreased availability of fresh water. They're already seeing a change in the seasons with rain being more unpredictable. They are also seeing stronger winds and stronger storms, higher tidal surges and more erosion.

After the Ministry of Housing and Environment, I went to the UN office to try and meet with some folks from the UNDP or EP, but they were out for lunch. So I called Mohammed Ijaz from the Maldives Science Society. They hosted a talk by Bill McKibben last year and I wanted to find out more about their work. He met me and said, are you free for the rest of the day? I want to show you something. He took me to the south harbour and we boarded a ferry for Villigilli. There, we had tea at a harbour front cafe and then toured the island.

Ijaz is a founder of the society. It has been around for about a year and a half and would not have been possible under the previous government. It's goal is to promote science and critical thinking. They host almost monthly talks which feature scientists from around the world. They are creating ties with organizations like NASA and inviting them to speak. They also issue press releases on relevant issues. There seems to me to be a bit of a struggle between science and religion. While I don't believe they are mutually exclusive, some might. Ijaz's previous job was as teacher and I think he's simply moved from the school to the community. He has a great passion for science and the scientific method. We had a great chat about communicating science and the difference between religion and science, theory and scientific theory.

I was pleased to visit the island of Villigilli. The plan had been to go the day before but the weather was too terrible. The island is smaller than Male', easy to walk around in 15 minutes. They have some real beach, which was exciting to see, and some great trees. Also saw some tiny white crabs which scurry across the beach almost invisibly. This particular island used to be a tourist resort, but hasn't been for some 20 years. The abandoned buildings are still standing on the beach front, graffiti-ed and not looking so good. It's a quite island and I was told many commute to Male'. I've seen a lot of swings, some makeshift, some more official looking. They're hung beneath the trees and people gather and swing and chat. Sounds like a lovely way to pass the time. Also a tradition is the barbecue. Fish are caught, then cooked on the beach. That's a life I could get used to.

At 4:30 I met, Hala, who is the sister of Ana who works as a dive instructor in Shaahina's office. Hala used to work for the President's Office on environmental issues. She helped write some of Gayoom's speeches--which are incredibly moving and should be read. She's done a lot of research on environmental issues, particularly as they pertain to Maldives and she pointed me to some reports which I look forward to digging up. (Weird coincidence, we both went to UEA. She did her MA and PhD there. Her MA was on sustainable tourism--I'll be looking for her dissertation in the British Library.) We had a quick meeting and then I decided I'd like to see another island if possible so went to Hulhulmale. I ran into Shahid on the way and he offered to come with me. It was getting dark and he said I shouldn't be on the island by myself at night since there are gangs (and have been some stabbings).

I'm glad I ran into him. He took me to his cousin's house and I got to meet his cousin who has worked to do some clean up work on Hulhulmale. He said he's stopped now after a few beach clean ups because it's been too difficult to motivate people living on the island to work. Hulhulmale is a reclaimed island that was built to have high density housing. It's larger than Male' and is attached to the airport island. People have come from around the country to living there and work in Male'. Each island has its own identity and it's been difficult getting people to mix and work together. While they were able to get the government involved and nurses and police joined in the clean up efforts, most people who lived on the island wouldn't participate.

There is a litter problem on all of the islands I visited (especially the trash island). I've been told that if there were bins, people would put their litter in them, but bins have not been provided. So trash ends up on the ground, in planters, road ways, on beaches and in the water. Good to know there's a will. Now just need to find the way.

We got back late and I was exhausted. I ate a very nice dinner in the hotel. One of the waiters said he'd make something special for me so I didn't even have to decide. What arrived was red chili chicken (not too spicy) and fried rice. It was delicious! After dinner, it was quick to bed.

This morning was beautiful. It was the first time I think I saw sun during my visit. I needed to be at the airport at 2, but wanted to try and fit in all of the places I hadn't yet been. I had a meeting at 8:30 with Paul from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He works on agricultural issues. We talked a little about the current system (mostly subsistence, working on some commercial--traditional--agriculture) and how climate change might effect it.

Then I ran off to the climate change department I met with the day earlier to get some copies of reports copied to a thumb drive, back to the UN (struck out twice), over to the ministry of tourism and culture, met with Salih who was very helpful, then to the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board, and an unsuccessful try to find the Environmental Protection Agency there. I took a break for lunch and to cool down. It was hotter and more humid than the previous days. Then I went to say thank you and goodbye to Shaahina and Gert and the office team.

I've picked up some good materials and have had many helpful conversations. I'm not sure I know everything I would wish to know but I think I'm on my way and hopefully after it all sinks in and I read what I've been given, I'll know more specifically what I'm missing.

I think this trip was good, but it also complicates what I'm writing in some ways. I was worried that they might frown upon some American chick writing about their place but instead I found that they really encouraged me to help bring attention to the issue. I hope I can do them justice in my dissertation.

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