MALE, Maldives, Oct. 17, 2009— -- Government has sunk to a new low in the Maldives, where the president and his ministers convened an underwater cabinet meeting 20 feet below the surface. Wearing wet suits and scuba gear, while using improvised sign language and waterproof documents pinned to a table, they spent a half-hour conducting affairs of state on the sea floor.
The stunt was a statement about rising sea levels, which threaten to submerge the Maldives within a century.
"We have been working against the odds for a very long time. We've gotten used to thinking outside the box," President Mohamed Nasheed told ABC News. He said fish weaved through the underwater meeting and a stingray hovered, camouflaged in the sand.
The Maldives, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, has been long known as a high-end vacation spot with crystalline waters and white sand beaches. The Saturday meeting was part of Nasheed's crusade for "saving paradise"; his citizens, many of whom watched live broadcasts of the event shot by underwater cameras, share his concern.
"My grandchildren won't be able to live the way we live. If the islands aren't raised, I don't think we'll be able to be here anymore," said Gabe Leteyf, a local journalist, referring to a costly but so far successful experiment that has helped a small handful of islands build up extra layers of sand.
At present, with the average height of the islands at just 4 feet above sea level, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that a rise of just 7 inches could make the Maldives unliveable. An extreme climate shift could make the 400,000 people who live in the Maldives the world's first nation of environmental refugees.
The Maldives government has begun considering a doomsday scenario in which the whole country would have to move to higher ground. The president has said he is looking to buy chunks of land or strike a deal with neighboring countries and told ABC News that some countries have been receptive, though he wouldn't specify which ones.
Climate Changes Reshaping Way of Life
In the near term, global warming and changing weather patterns are reshaping life in the Maldives. At the market in Malé, the country's capital, fishermen complain their yields have dropped to half. Climate patterns have shifted so dramatically that the traditional weather, known as the nakaiy, can no longer reliably predict seasonal rains. Roughly a third of the country's 1,192 islands are seeing substantial erosion, running a scare through the tourism industry, the main source of income for the Maldives and its largest private sector employer.
"There are a lot of islands that have been submerged, and beaches that have been eroded altogether," said Girish Sehgal, General Manager of the Taj Exotica, a resort that like many in the Maldives is set on its own private island.
"People come here for the sun, sand and beach. If it's not here, then the people of the Maldives won't have any livelihood," Sehgal said.
Saturday's underwater meeting was a message to global leaders ahead of a major climate change summit in Copenhagen in December. Maldivians are placing hope in the summit in Copenhagen, while looking to America for leadership and a promise of emission cuts.
"President Obama's administration has been quite an encouragement to people down here and to people in island nations," said Ali Rilwal, a local environmentalist. "There's a lot of inspiration for us; we hope the U.S. is going to take a stand this time."
In September, President Nasheed told a high-level meeting at the U.N. that any action in Copenhagen short of a global treaty on greenhouse gas reductions would be "signing a death warrant" for the people of the Maldives. More specifically, President Nasheed wants world powers to make an arrangement for small island countries such as the Maldives, including financial aid to support adaptation to changing climate conditions.
"This for us is survival -- as a nation, as a country, as a culture," Rilwal. said. "If emissions are not reduced, we might be submerged, and in a hundred years we'll have to hold our cabinet meetings underwater."