According to the UNDP Climate Change Adaptation, over 80 percent of the land area of Maldives is less than one meter above mean sea level. The threat from rising sea levels is a real and pressing issue for all small island states. The small island states account for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but are among the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

The low-lying small island state is already witnessing an increase in intense rainfall and resultant flooding, cyclonic winds, and storm surges. In the near term, the islands of the Maldives are very vulnerable to inundation and gradual sea-level rise will aggravate the existing problem of beach erosion; in the recent past, a number of the inhabited islands and tourist beach resorts have reported moderate to severe beach erosion. Rising sea levels also threaten the scarce freshwater resources of the Maldives. Saltwater intrusion is gradually encroaching into the islands’ small pockets or ‘lenses’ of the freshwater underground.

The coral reefs surrounding the Maldives are at risk due to the gradual warming of seawater (in addition to pollution from human-made sources). As well as rising sea levels, augmenting sea temperatures will also increase coral bleaching, where the reef gradually dies because the colored algae that live within and help to feed the corals are expelled as the water warms. These reefs support both the country’s tourism and fisheries industries upon which the people depend, climate change is a severe threat to its economy.

All development and settlement are primarily coastal; it follows that populations, infrastructure, agricultural areas, and fresh groundwater supplies are all vulnerable to extreme tides, wave, and surge events. A UNDP development report on the Maldives found that some of the possible consequences of climate change include beach erosion, infrastructural damage, loss of biodiversity, drought, and impact on human health and food security.

What the Maldives are Doing

The Maldives are a very active participant in the international climate conferences, even though their emissions are relatively negligible. In 2011, Maldives announced it had signed the world’s first Strategic National Action Plan that integrates disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Collaboration with different sectors of the economy is crucial, the tourism industry, which accounts for roughly 33% of GDP, should be maintained to fund active community projects that are working on solutions to the pressing problem of climate change.

The government has taken steps to build resilient infrastructure and create warning mechanisms for sudden catastrophes such as underwater earthquakes. However, such projects have proven to be costly; the country needs to be fiscally robust. The unit cost of shoreline protection per capita in small islands is substantially higher than the unit cost for a similar structure in a more extensive territory with a larger population.

The Broader Crisis: Climate Refugees

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that sea-level rise impacts on the low-lying Pacific Island atoll States of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, and the Marshall Islands may, at some threshold, pose risks to their sovereignty or existence. It is also estimated that there will be around 200 million climate refugees by the year 2050.

A man from Kiribati, who was seeking to be the first climate refugee, was sent back on a flight home from New Zealand in 2015. He was held in custody, for overstaying his permit, after his effort to claim refugee status was denied. Similar cases are to be expected shortly; therefore, it makes sense to develop a legal framework to account for victims of climate change.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was a measure implemented to address the refugees of the Second World War. The U.N. intended for it to be temporary. However, the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol are used today to cover the world’s vast number of refugees fleeing persecution. People fleeing environmental destruction are not explicitly accounted for, which is worrisome as levels of migration, and asylum seekers are expected to surpass anything ever seen before. The cause of their displacement is very different, albeit their suffering is similar.

Whether climate refugees could be categorized as stateless is also uncertain. Most of the cases in the past consist of states that ceased to exist for political reasons, which were later incorporated into newly formed states, notably the dismantling of the Balkans in the 1990s. The question thus remains, if the state physically does not exist or is uninhabitable, how should these potential victims be supported?

Bilateral agreements are essential, such as the one Australia has with Tuvalu. However, they are not encompassing enough to account for severe exacerbations of climate crises and the migration flows that would ensue as a result. Delegates at the Maldives meeting in 2006 proposed an amendment to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that would extend the mandate of the U.N. refugee regime to include climate refugees.

A Legal Framework?

Ingrid Boas has suggested a sui generis regime for the recognition, protection, and resettlement of climate refugees, which must be built on a set of core principles tailored for the specific problem, including its political, legal, and ethical dimensions.

The regime is based on five principles. The first refers to the ability to foresee the need for populations to evacuate, which is less complicated than doing the same for war or political turmoil. The second principle assumes that most of the climate refugees would be unable to return, and therefore the terminology used should be “resettlement”. Thirdly, as mentioned previously, laws should be drafted on a collective basis, to deal with groups instead of individuals. The fourth principle designates a fund to support the affected state and its local communities through agencies; the focus here would be within the country at risk. The fifth and final component is the principle of international burden-sharing. It is not a controversial proposal that those who have contributed the most ought to bear the moral responsibility for its victims. This proposal would require a directed pooling of resources and funding, as well as the resolute will of the international community.

Ronny Nehme is a former student at Saint Louis University –Madrid Campus.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

R. Nehme (2020). “Climate Change: The case of Maldives”, Observatory on contemporary crises, January 23, 2020, URL: