Chronicle of a flood foretold

For the Maldives, the day after tomorrow is now.

Published December 31, 2004 1:26AM (EST)

The Asian tsunami has delivered unto the Maldives that nation's worst nightmare, a disaster foretold: being drowned by the sea. Located just southwest of India, the Maldives form an archipelago with an inhabited area a bit larger than Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, two-thirds of the capital city, Malé, was flooded, the waters having easily breached a 6-foot-tall breakwater. At least 63 people have died, 72 are missing, and 12,000 people have been moved from the country's outlying islands to the capital. A quarter of the Maldives' 80 tourist resorts have been destroyed, and dozens of the 1,200 islands are still under water. In some of those, says Ahmed Khaleel, counselor to the Maldives' mission to the United Nations, "the tsunami hit from one side of the island and left from the other. Everything was wiped out."

The Maldives' U.N. ambassador, Mohamed Latheef, laments the tragedy and says that it has touched most every person back home. Of the five people working at the Maldives' mission in New York City, he says, three have not yet been able to contact family members, as the nation's communications system has collapsed.

According to Latheef, it's a nightmare that the country has long feared. But the devastation came far more rapidly -- in this case, from a seabed earthquake -- than anyone had ever expected. While the Maldives have long been aware of the threat from tsunamis, Latheef sees the scenes unfolding in his country and the surrounding coastal nations as ominous visions of just the kind of tumultuous weather that scientists have long viewed as a symptom of global warming.

Latheef says that in a country whose highest point is just 7 feet above sea level, global warming could, over time, produce destruction similar to that wreaked by the tsunami. The atmosphere warms, the sea grows hotter, water levels rise, and the Maldives suddenly discover that they are no longer the bucolic home to 340,000 people -- a cohesive population of mostly Sunni Muslims -- but are transformed into an underwater coral reef. In fact, the Maldives, according to Latheef, were in the midst of conducting their own study on how global warming was affecting the national economy and corroding the coastline when the tsunami hit. "In this case, we've had a dramatic sea-level rise, a dramatic change of weather," he says. "The causes may be different, but we're having the same consequences as we're having with global warming."

For Maldivians, this is not a science fiction scenario. As one of the founding members of the U.N.-linked Alliance of Small Island States -- formed in 1989 to represent the interests of island nations (the group's most populous member is Haiti) -- the country's diplomatic corps has long been active in arguing that climate change represents a direct threat to its future. Indeed, it was the Maldives' ambassador to the United Nations who first raised the issue of global climate change to the U.N. General Assembly in 1987.

Since then, the country has been a leading force in the AOSIS campaign to convince the United Nations, the World Bank and other international institutions that its very life depends on action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The small island states almost seem to have a nose for potential disaster because they're so close to it every day. Just three weeks ago, at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Buenos Aires, the AOSIS called on the United States and Europe to abide by the strictures of the Kyoto Protocol to mitigate the climactic havoc caused by global warming.

The United Nations places the Maldives among such nations as Tuvalu and Nauru as threatened with possible submergence in the coming decades by rising sea levels in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Before the tsunami struck, that issue was already on the agenda for an AOSIS meeting in Mauritius on Jan. 10.

When the sci-fi film "The Day After Tomorrow" was released earlier this year, Latheef says that he and Khaleel were invited to the premiere. Latheef was traveling but Khaleel attended. Although of dubious scientific value, the film's rendering of New York being swallowed by a global-warming-induced flood hit home with Maldivians, steeped in the fear of disruptions of the earth -- whether caused by humankind or rumblings far below the sea. "Long before Manhattan," says Latheef, "we would disappear."

By Mark Schapiro

Mark Schapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Harper's Bazaar and the Utne Reader.

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