Day 6

Desperate to fund fight against climate change, former Maldives president calls for debt restructuring

Among the world's lowest-lying nations, 80 per cent of the Maldives rests only one metre above sea level. But Mohamed Nasheed says without restructuring, the nation can't afford projects to protect islands and citizens.

Mohamed Nasheed says without restructuring, the nation can't afford projects to protect islands and citizens

An aerial view shows the Maldives capital Male on Dec. 14, 2009. Former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed says that without debt restructuring, the island nation won't be able to afford needed climate change mitigation projects. (Reinhard Krause/Reuters)

Without debt restructuring, the Maldives will struggle to fund much needed climate change adaptation measures — even as the island nation faces the existential threat of rising sea levels — according to the country's former president.

Mohamed Nasheed, who led the Maldives from 2008 until 2012 and pushed for greater attention to the effects of climate change on the country, says that vulnerable countries will struggle to pay down debt while mitigating the effects of a warming planet.

"The planet has already heated enough, going out of its usual course, and therefore we are going to face challenges with extreme weather coming upon us," Nasheed told Day 6 guest host Faith Fundal.

Among the world's lowest-lying nations, 80 per cent of the islands of the Maldives are only one metre above sea level. That makes the archipelago's approximately 1,200 islands extremely vulnerable to storm surges and severe weather events.

The inhabited islands, about 200, are home to a population of about 530,000 people, which means solutions are needed urgently.

In order to protect the islands, Nasheed says the country must invest in mitigation projects like water breakers to help slow coastal erosion.

But he says with the country spending approximately 30 to 40 per cent of its budget on debt repayment, and another 25 per cent on adaptation measures, the Maldives are facing a financial crunch.

Maldives' former president Mohamed Nasheed led the country from 2008 to 2012. During his tenure, he held an underwater meeting with ministers to draw attention to the effects of climate change. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

The Maldives spends around $10 million annually for coastal protection initiatives, but will need up to $8.8 billion to protect all of its inhabited islands, according to a 2016 estimate by its environment ministry reported by Reuters.

"For us to be able to have a decent living, we must be able to suspend our debt repayment and spend on adaptation measures as well," said Nasheed, who is now an ambassador for the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of countries disproportionately affected by climate change.

'Most vulnerable country in the world,' says minister

Speaking on CNBC in May, the Maldives' environment minister Aminath Shauna warned the country could disappear by the end of the century if environmental damage continues at its current pace.

"Climate change is real and we are the most vulnerable country in the world," she said.

As the sea level rises, ocean water is encroaching on land, which is already being consumed by increasingly powerful waves that are eroding coasts. Warmer oceans, too, have resulted in coral bleaching and the loss of biodiversity, impacting the region's fishing industry.

Fresh water supplies have also been contaminated by sea water, requiring costly desalination, Nasheed says.

A resort island in the Maldives. Approximately 80 per cent of islands in the Maldives are one metre above sea level. (Reinhard Krause/Reuters)

It's no surprise that the country, best-known for its luxury resorts, is already preparing for a warmer future. 

The government has built sea walls and is also implementing natural solutions like planting coral reefs to help reduce coastal erosion.

A human-made island, built with sand pumped from the seabed, will be home to the City of Hope — a new settlement that rests two metres above sea level — in the coming years.

But efforts to mitigate climate change require funding — and Nasheed maintains that will be impossible without debt restructuring for vulnerable countries like his.

"It is through [restructuring] that we would be able to find some space in our budgets to build the water breakers, to build the embankments, to raise our land, to build flood defence systems, to have better irrigation for us to survive," he said.

Tipping point

A report released earlier this month by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that in several scenarios, Earth will surpass 2 C of warming above pre-industrial times within this century unless significant reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.

On the heels of the report, Nasheed warns the Earth is at a tipping point.

"Everything is going out of control. We are losing the equilibrium of the planet," he said, echoing calls for measures that would limit warming to just 1.5 C and reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

WATCH: IPCC says the world is dangerously close to runaway warming

UN sounds alarm over major 'irreversible' climate change

2 years ago
Duration 3:48
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world is dangerously close to runaway warming — and that humans are "unequivocally" to blame.

Even still, Nasheed says he's positive about the possibilities that technology holds in the effort to slow global warming.

"I'm very optimistic, mostly because renewable energy now is financially viable, economically feasible," he said. "Even if people try to sell fossil fuel, soon it [will] go out of the market."

"The world will be challenged. There's no doubt about that…. But the question is, how far can we adapt ourselves to survive the extreme weather that will be upon us?"

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Reuters. Produced by Sameer Chhabra.

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