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.