The Sea, the Island, and the President: Can the Maldives pull off sustainable prosperity without their climate champion?

Following up on the recent blog I wrote about low-lying island nations, I spent part of last week getting a more direct experience with one of these countries. The United States Institute of Peace welcomed former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed for a conference on Monday, June 25th in Washington, D.C. Nasheed was ousted last February by a coup under controversial circumstances. Though he expressed regret over losing the unique stature and influence he had as head of state, Nasheed is still extremely active in the country, pushing for new democratic elections and actively promoting “The Island President”, a documentary narrating his story and seeking to cast light on his unique fight for the survival of his country and the establishment of a functioning democracy after centuries of authoritarian rule.

“Anni”, as he is better known by people of the archipelago, has not left behind his ideals in the presidential office, particularly with regard to climate change. When he touched on the topic of climate change at last week’s conference, the former President called it, as he very often does, “a very serious issue happening right now.” With an average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, and the world’s lowest natural peak at an astounding 2.4 meters, the archipelago is indeed at the forefront of climate disruption and sea-level rise. Attempting to shame the rest of the world into taking action to mitigate carbon emissions, in 2008 Nasheed launched an ambitious plan for carbon neutrality. The plan seemed achievable: it tapped into the archipelago’s ample wind and solar energy resources, completing the mix with biomass to meet the modest energy needs of this country of 400,000 people, which has a low reliance on electricity and (understandably) almost no cars. Even the country’s most prominent and energy-consuming economic sector, high-end tourism, started bringing itself up to speed. Nasheed’s government planned to offset aviation emissions, which make up the lion’s share of the archipelago’s carbon footprint,  by using the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme. Finally, as “The Island President” abundantly documents, the Maldives also took the lead in making the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) a force to reckon with in international climate summits.

Getting his hands dirty for clean energy: President Nasheed at work on the presidential palace’s roof, displaying a typical hands-on approach to sustainability (source:

Now, with Nasheed and his top climate advisors out of the picture for at least some time, many wonder how much of his sustainability legacy will survive. For a while, the answer seemed to be: not a lot. The government of Mohamed Waheed failed to qualify for international grants that its predecessor had started applying for, and showed no particular gusto for taking up the role of mobilizer-in-chief in high-level climate change negotiations. For example, the ousted president and his entourage had planned to join forces with the Global Campaign for Climate Action at Rio + 20, and then persuade ten other nations to pledge to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. The project did not survive the end of his presidency, but there’s a twist – didn’t I mention in the last blog that low-lying island states are famous for diplomatic surprises?

Just a week ago, Mohamed Waheed took the opportunity of the Rio + 20 summit to announce that the Maldives would become the world’s largest marine reserve, allowing only sustainable fishing practices all over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). I took the opportunity of the Q&A session following the conference to ask Nasheed how he judged the sincerity of that move, His response was remarkably pragmatic: “Thirty percent of the work force depends on fishing for a living; you just won’t change their working habits that quickly.” I was surprised at first, perhaps even a bit disappointed, that Nasheed did not endorse this ambitious policy. Though I doubted its feasibility, I thought Waheed’s decision was far from naive, leveraging the archipelago’s unique (and fragile) marine resources to weigh more heavily on global environmental decision-making – in a way reminiscent of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s efforts to put forward its massive forestry capital.

After looking deeper into it, however, I realized Nasheed was right. As he had mentioned, the Maldives is already an extremely progressive nation when it comes to protecting marine resources and wildlife; the new reserve status might just be a step too far, sacrificing a population’s most pressing needs for the sake of an eco-friendly reputation. Worldwatch has long highlighted the importance of transforming cultures to achieve sustainability, and the “Island President” – who has persistently linked environmental protection to democratic governance – seemed well aware of that too.

The capital, Malé, is a dense blend of beautifully colored buildings. But how will it resist sea-level rise? (source:

This recent development is an important reminder that there is more to sustainability than solar panels and protected areas; in the case of the Maldives, it is especially clear. How do you fit a country’s vibrant and booming capital on an island no bigger than a couple of square miles? How do you make an extraordinarily dispersed and segregated archipelago act as one country? When do you give up on carbon neutrality efforts and take to the boats, to continue more than 2,000 years of a nation’s history elsewhere? Eight years after the Indian Ocean tsunami – a wake-up call for the vulnerability of the Maldives to the vagaries of the sea – four years after its democracy’s birth and four months into its prolonged coma, these questions have yet to be answered. Time will tell if it’s Mohamed Nasheed who gets to answer these questions, as returning head of state; in the meantime, he is already on to his next battles. When I respectfully uttered a “mister President” as I walked past him on my way out of the conference, “Anni” gleefully replied: “oh, but that was a long time ago!”


“The Island President” is currently in theaters and available for download on iTunes. You can also watch Nasheed’s interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in April.

Antoine Ebel is a Climate and Energy Research Intern at the Worldwatch Institute.

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