Alyssa and I had the pleasure of meeting with Shaf, the vice director of the Dhangethi Secretariat.
Young, friendly, and excited about his island, he helped us understand Dhangethi a little better.
“Why are the coconut trees on the shoreline painted with numbers?”
“The coconut trees are important in the Maldives, and on this island the government owns them and leases them to people. The two exceptions are if they planted the tree on their property, or if a tree is part of their inheritance.”
Indeed the coconut palm appears on the currency and has been named the national tree.
“So you have lived here your whole life, have you seen any change in the weather or sea levels?”
“There are very few people talking about climate change. They don’t teach it in the schools. I have seen no change.”
When I asked about the erosion I’ve seen or beaches that have disappeared, he gave the following explanation.
“As the seasons change and wind changes and storms come, there are patches of sand that move around every island. When we build a jetty or a pier, it interrupted that flow. Instead of currents moving the sand around the island, it moves the sand off shore. This is what we have seen.”
Clearly seasonal whether impacts the amount of sand on any given beach, but it appears that effect is amplified by construction that changes normal currents. This may be amplifying or masking the effects of sea level rise.
I looked into the seal level monitoring data for the Maldives. (Click Here). Even though there is lots of up and down from month to month (and even year to year), the trend is that the mean sea level has risen about 10cm since 1989 when people started monitoring data. This is a very small amount and barely perceptible over a 30 year period. It is especially harder to see when in the 30 years Maldives have undergone a massive increase in the standard of living and building both of which obscure tiny changes lapping that their doorstep.
Shaf pointed out that even though the island is small, local politics are contentious. It used to be that the Maldivian government would appoint an official to run things on the island. They would train the official on how to interface with the central government and on various protocols. Since moving to a three year election cycle, it has become harder to get people who are educated in bureaucracy and received higher levels of education. Consequently, people look at shorter term gains from election cycle to cycle.
“There is also a divide from the North and South part of the island. An environmental impact analysis was done on where to build the new pier. It stated that the North side of the island was the ideal location to minimize the environmental impacts. The representatives from the South side of the island refused to let the pier be build there. Consequently, the pier was built in the middle on the eastern side of the island. And we have seen many feet of beach disappear from the southern island beach.”
Getting caught up in local short term gains is not a Maldivian problem but a human one. Will our species be able to put it aside to face larger challenges that threaten us?
Shaf was excited about Dhangethi. He shared with us that the atolls were named after characters in Dhivehi. He was young and full of hope for the future. “People are investing in their future, not living day-to-day. For example most people here invest in boats. We have over 90 registered boats on the island. A boat can bring in $1200 a month when they partner with resorts.”