Register Tuesday | December 7 | 2021

The Island President and a Nation Under the Sea

Sweep your eyes across any world map or globe and, unless you squint closely on the ocean expanse just west of India, they can be easy to miss: a chain of about 1,200 tiny islands marching almost in a straight line, from the Lakshadweep Islands to the north and the Chagos Archipelago to the south — the Maldives. With a population of only 350,000 spread over one of the most geographically dispersed landmasses of any state, the country is about as far as possible from a byword for “crowded”. Malé, the capital, is an exception.

With around a third of the country’s population primarily located on an island that’s less than six square kilometers large, the landmass the city occupies has now been entirely urbanized. Save the occasional landfill project, that’s left the growing settlement with nowhere to go but up; aerial views reveal a city that looks like a miniaturized, tropical Manhattan that’s somehow drifted into the south seas. In fact, the Maldivian capital is more densely populated than its famously vertical stateside twin; Malé is actually the fourth most densely populated island in the world (Manhattan, by comparison, is only seventh).

The Maldives’ official tourism website has even begun promoting its “spectacular skyline of candy-coloured skyscrapers” alongside the upscale resorts on which the country’s economy depends most heavily. But total urbanization has actually become a serious problem for Malé; it’s left the city’s population virtually nowhere to flee in the event of flash floods. Monsoon rains turn its streets into waterways on an annual basis; the Maldives are the world’s most low-lying country, with no place more than three meters above sea level. The real wake-up call came during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, when two-thirds of the city were entirely inundated by the sea.

So great was the tsunami’s impact on the Maldives — 50% of its GDP was washed away over the course of a few hours — that it unleashed pent-up demands for political reform. Mohamed Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist, was swept into office in 2008, bringing to a close the the 30-year regime of Maumool Abdul Gayoom. The top of his agenda quickly became climate change; as he successfully made clear to much of the world in the coming years, rising sea levels were due to turn the Maldives into the blank spot on the world map that so many had accidentally perceived.

Photo by Craig Gobler

Nasheed’s rise to power and his subsequent struggle against climate change — culminating in the high diplomatic drama of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen — are the subject of Jon Shenk’s beautifully-shot documentary The Island President. Enjoying perhaps the closest access to a sitting head of state ever finagled by a filmmaker, Shenk effectively rotates between the president’s official duties — including stunts like holding an underwater cabinet meeting — and breathtaking visuals both above and under the turqouise waves of the Maldives. The effect is to cultivate both an awe of Nasheen’s upbeat tenaciousness and a sense of what a great loss the Maldives would be.

Still, the president’s unprecedented transparency also allows foreshadowing glimpses of potentially fatal mistakes. Nasheed’s declaration that the Maldives would become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation is seen as an audactious step by his Western advisers. But the move creates tension with potential allies: developing states like India and China want developed world emitters to tackle their carbon output before they will consider compromising economic growth.

And while China ultimately proved the biggest spoiler at the Copenhagen conference, where Nasheed is able to rally world leaders — albeit not to a legally binding agreement — it’s an Indian diplomat who makes one of the film’s most troubling points. “I can’t sell it to my people,” he tells Nasheen, in response to the Maldivian president’s insistence their countries put emissions cuts ahead of development at all costs. “Can you sell it to yours?”

This does not appear high on Nasheed’s list of concerns; it seems clear to him that survival should be a self-evident priority (and that green technology can mean development without compromise). However sensible that notion, the debate, in other democracies, has not stopped there. The film, at least, hints at but does not linger on growing political bottlenecks at home. It’s unclear to what extent the president shared this focus, but by 2010, a year after the events depicted in the documentary, the Maldives were engulfed in anti-Nasheed protests.

Reload: sandbags are a common sight in Malé. Photo by Shahee Ilyas

On February 7, Nasheed resigned as the Maldives’ president in what he would later describe as a coup. Opposition protests had grown, and the defection of some military elements eventually delivered the crushing blow to his administration. A unified narrative of what’s happened in the country is still being worked out by outside observers. Appearing at a screening of the film in Manhattan on Saturday, the former president lamented the physical violence members of his party have endured since; the press has speculated over whether the overthrow was linked to forces tied to the Gayoom regime or to Islamists.

The opposition, for their part, asserts that Nasheed had been placed popular sovereignty too far above the rule of law — clashes between the administration and a judiciary still sympathetic to the old regime prompted the protests that ultimately removed the president from power. Such principled power plays were clearly a mainstay of Nasheed’s politics; “a big media event,” rather than behind-the-scenes negotiations, topped the list of his strategies for Copenhagen. This was savvy on the international stage, where his tiny country commanded little influence, but similar workarounds may have proven more problematic in the context of the Maldives’ smaller and only newly democratic domestic sphere.

Nasheed still clearly continues to place a great deal of faith in the court of public opinion. In his New York appearance, he seemed hopeful that demonstrations against the new government could bring snap elections to his country — and recommended mass protest to Americans fearing the effects of climate change.

And if he really had overplayed his activist hand in the Maldives, he’s showing that he’s able to wield it skillfully in the US, where it took Nasheed only a single appearance on Late Night With David Letterman before the State Department was convinced to reverse its Maldives policy and condemn the February coup. Whether or not such savvy will help rescue his presidency, or bring about a new, legally binding agreement on emissions at the next global climate change summit, in 2015, remains to be seen.

Mohamed Nasheen and the Maldivian military allegedly responsive for removing him from office, in happier times

Either way, it’s difficult to walk away from The Island President with a sense the improbable mid-ocean skyline of Malé might long survive. Even imminent emissions commitments would not stop sea levels rising for many decades. One of the film’s most haunting shots pans over an urbanized Maldives island, like Malé’s, that was entirely turned to ruin by the tsunami. Nasheen’s wife later appears, lamenting that she brought children into the world. “I am not as much of an optimist as my husband,” she deadpans.

Nasheed is, indeed, more hopeful, but not naïve. “I did not want my children to be in solitary confinement,” he asserts, “and I do not want them to become environmental refugees.” In what was perhaps just another of his media stunts as president, he announced that the Maldives would begin buying land to relocate its population (a move another small island nation, Kirbaiti, made waves by repeating more recently). But in the film, he admits to knowing it may be too late for his country.

A growing number of bizarre attempts at architectural or engineering solutions to the islands’ problems aside, the Maldives will have likely slipped beneath the sea by 2100; the country has already bid farewell to dozens of “disappeared islands”. Whatever the case, Nasheen believes, “it is better to have done something”.

That sentiment makes it unclear whether what motivates Nasheed’s climate fight is the moral necessity of trying to save his island home, however futile, or the selflessness of trying to limit further impacts elsewhere. Manhattan, he notes in the film, sits on ground not much higher than the Maldives. Expensive seawalls will only be able to do so much to prevent coastal inundation; they did not allow the tsunami to spare Malé. What Nasheed’s thought does make evident is that his recent political demise is far from just the Maldives’ loss; in depriving him of a critical stage, it is as much, if not more, our own.

A flooded Malé street. Photo by Shahee Ilyas

From Urban Photo. Follow Szabla on Twitter.

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