Mariyam Shiuna, PhD Researcher on the Maldives Printable version

As a Maldivian, it is difficult to envisage a future where our islands cease to exist. It is a difficult task for anyone to imagine their homeland disappearing into the ocean and the aftermath of such an event. Despite all the theoretical arguments about sea level rises over the years, it was the devastating effects of the 2004 tsunami that hit home for ordinary Maldivians. We witnessed the destruction of entire islands and the devastating effect it had on our island communities. We realised how vulnerable our islands were and that disappearing into the ocean may be a reality for future generations. The impending problem of global warming, the current predictions that the Maldives may disappear by 2080 due to sea level rise and the threats this poses for our existence as a country raises important questions. How can we as a nation preserve our identity, culture and sovereignty without a homeland?

Former President Mohamed Nasheed's announcement about purchasing land from Sri Lanka, India or Australia grabbed headlines around the world and had everyone talking in the international community. The underlying message behind this announcement was strong, particularly for the climate change cause, but how feasible is this ‘insurance policy’ of buying land abroad for us?

The notion of buying land and moving the population of an entire country, as small as we may be, is not an easy task, particularly in relation to the preservation of our culture. As Maldivians, we are very proud of our identity and culture, which is very much a product of the landscape we grew up in. The roots of our coconut trees, the marine life in our reefs, the white sands on our beaches and the unique dialect of every island brings together the island nation of the Maldives. What is Maldivian identity without our islands? The culture of the Maldives which I often take for granted, would need to be preserved and protected no matter where we migrate. We could do this by ensuring that our language, history and shared beliefs are passed down to future generations regardless of where we might be based in the future.

It is thought that India and Sri Lanka could be the likely option to migrate because of our cultural links. Culturally, India and Sri Lanka maybe the obvious place to migrate but I doubt that our neighbouring countries would allow us to settle in their lands on a permanent basis, given their own disputes over land (E.g. Kashmir) and ethnicity (Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic conflict). Some argue that Australia maybe a better option to purchase land because of the large amount of land available and because it is a developed country. However, would Australia be willing to sell off land given their tight immigration controls? Concurrent with the recent political developments in the Maldives and the increasing assistance from China, some see China as a possible country that might offer us refuge. However, I don't see any cultural similarity between the Maldives and China, and without our islands, we no longer serve a strategic position in the Indian Ocean, hence China is unlikely to be the future homeland for our country.

Provided that we are able to purchase land in another country, I imagine that the Maldives would stand as a sovereign or semi-autonomous city-state, similar to Vatican City in Rome. As a nation we rely on tourism as the main source of income, so without our islands we would have to completely restructure our economy. More importantly, if we were to move country, would we be tied to the laws of our host country, or be able to set laws against our own existing beliefs and social norms? The outcome of such a question would have a great impact on the culture of the Maldivians, as well as on the practical mechanisms by which the population might live. I cannot foresee a mechanism by which the Maldives would be allowed to set its own laws, which brings into question whether our culture could really survive such a transition.

If the Maldivian islands do disappear, we may migrate into different countries and form Maldivian communities within other countries, similar to the Palestinian communities we see in countries like Jordan and Lebanon. In a worst case scenario we may also exist as communities in large refugee camps. Such a diaspora may be able to keep the unique culture of the Maldives alive for a generation or two, but for how long?

As disconcerting as it is to see tourism adverts with lines such as ‘come to the Maldives before it sinks’, we go about everyday life believing that our tropical islands and country will last forever. I remain optimistic that my great grandchildren will grow old in the Maldives and that we would never have to permanently migrate. However, hypothetically speaking should we cease to exist, an ideal destination would be to migrate to Sri Lanka or Malaysia because of our cultural similarities and the existing relatively large Maldivian diaspora communities in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Furthermore, if we make concerted efforts to transmit our cultural knowledge across generations using various social mechanisms we may be able to preserve what would be left of the Maldives.