Artwork: Adam Shaheer

By Akiko Fujii, UNDP Maldives Resident Representative

WORLD ENVIRONMENT DAY 2020

When I came to Maldives last April, I couldn’t have imagined the world in such a situation. Years from now, when we look back, 2020 will be marked as a time of extraordinary challenge.

As they say, hindsight is 2020. There will be arguments, ‘we could have done this, we could have that’. But there is no time to bicker and we can’t wait for tomorrow. The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented opportunity to transform society; to make it sustainable and more inclusive. If we avail of this opportunity, we will make that proverbial difference and leave the world a better place, for future generations. But it won’t be easy.

What started as a health crisis has become a humanitarian crisis, with clear social and economic consequences, especially for some countries and vulnerable populations.  After a decade of living and working in small island nations, it is clear to me that the dangers posed by COVID19 in the Maldives, and other small island nations, arise from a number of ‘pre-existing conditions’, such as high economic dependence on tourism; heavy dependence on fuel imports; and climate change risks, including coral bleaching and water shortages.

The UN Development Programme’s recently published ‘Human Development Dashboard on Vulnerability to Pandemics’ indicates that Maldives’ economy is one of the world’s hardest hit. This is because tourism and tourism-related sectors of the economy, such as transport, communication, and retail, account for more than 70% of GDP.

While the health crisis will eventually pass, tourism in small island nations like the Maldives will continue to be threatened by climate change, as it degrades the very ecosystem that attracts foreign visitors.

We need to change the way we live, to ensure that the economic damage Maldives and other island nations are suffering, as a result of COVID19, is not repeated permanently by climate change or environmental degradation. The disappearing coral reefs, beach erosion, and rising sea levels caused by rising temperatures, can only be stopped by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that drive global warming.

So, our current dependence on fossil fuels must be replaced with renewable energy. For instance, solar panels would enable us to harness the sun’s heat, to satisfy energy needs. The Maldives government has set a target of meeting 70 percent of daytime electricity through renewable technology in inhabited islands. It is imperative this target be achieved soon.

Over 95 percent of Maldives’ GHG emissions come from the energy sector such as electricity generation and transport. While 40 percent of the emission is from resorts, an almost equal amount is from domestic activities, across island communities. The government estimates that if current electricity generation methods and domestic consumption patterns continue, CO2 emissions will more than double by 2030, compared to 2011.

Therefore, each one of us must reassess our own energy management and consumption patterns. There are many ways to help preserve the environment, such as the private use of solar panels on roof tops, less use of air-conditioning, filtered water instead of bottled, public transport over private cars, and riding bicycles rather than motorcycles.

As the COVID19 pandemic eats away at government budgets, the financial burden of power generation has become even more painfully apparent. Now, Maldives spends seven percent of its GDP on oil imports, largely for generating electricity. So, the shift to renewable energy is more urgent than ever.

COVID19 also reinforces the importance of water security. Access to clean water, not only for drinking but also for basic hygiene practices, such as washing hands, is a human right. A recent study conducted by the government, supported by UNDP under the Green Climate Fund, reaffirmed a drastic decline in ground water security and safety, due to increased salination caused by rising sea levels.

It is critical to improve water resource management through traditional practices, such as rainwater harvesting and protecting ground water supplies, to reduce dependence on desalinated and bottled water. Uninterrupted water supply is also necessary for improving food security, considering that Maldives depends on food imports. This financial burden has been exposed by the loss of income resulting from resort closures.

This burden can be reduced if local food production is increased. Many people have lost jobs in resorts and cannot afford to live in the capital Malé. In this extraordinary situation, local governments can play an important role by making it easier for people to return to islands, where they can contribute to the economy and food security, through farming, fishing, and food processing enterprises. Such ventures would revitalize domestic economies, create employment, and make them more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive.

Pursuing such local development would set Maldives on the path to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and ensure the success of its Strategic Action Plan. It could also serve as a model for the rest of the world. It is now or never. Let us be remembered as the generation not only marked by COVID19, but as the generation that led the world onto a sustainable and equitable development path.  

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