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Environment

Climate change inspires fear and hope on Maldives

The Republic of Maldives, a tiny nation made up of more than a thousand islands, sits a mere meter above water. With the sea-level rises expected by the end of this century, its inhabitants are facing displacement.

Seen from the air, Utheemu - in the northern Maldives - looks like a tiny green jellyfish floating alone in the vast Indian Ocean. It's a typical Maldivian island: Its clean-swept streets, freshly white-washed houses, and pots of flowers outside every home show the deep love that the 345,000 Maldivians have for their homeland.

After centuries of living on remote atolls, the people of Utheemu have adapted well to living with water. The sea, for them, is the source of livelihood: their food, their economy, and their leisure.

But rising sea levels and coastal erosion wrought by climate change threaten not only their way of life, but also the islands' very existence. Like many regions along the coast of the Indian subcontinent, most of the country sits no more than a meter above water.

The scarcity of land on these small islands means many residents live in close proximity to the sea, putting them at risk of inundation.

Hope in the face of climate change

Mohammed works at a luxury resort on one of the neighboring islands most of the year. But he returns to his island whenever he can. Like many people living on Utheemu, he doesn't believe that climate change is a threat to his home - or his country.

"If you look at the island, you will see that compared to other islands, the ground level here is higher," Mohammed told DW. "We are very much confident that if things don't go too bad, we are on the safe side."

A man sells fish on a market. (Photo: Heidi Fuller-Love, DW)

The majority of people on the Maldives depend on a clean sea, and all it supplies, to survive

An hour's flight ride south, Male - the Maldivian capital - is densely populated and lively.

Male has long had an active voice on the issue of climate change. Back in November 2008, then-President Mohamed Nasheed planned to purchase land outside the country where residents could relocate, but he was removed from office before the initiative was put into action.

Last chance for the Maldives

At her office overlooking the Male docks, Maldives Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon explains the effects that climate change is having on her country.

"We have slowly seen the impact of rising sea levels and sea swells, and felt the impact of what mother nature can do," Maumoon told DW. "Already we see that the water level is polluted and becoming saline. We see the impact on our coral reefs, the impact on fish stocks and fishing - on the life and livelihoods of people living in the Maldives."

The foreign minister says her government is committed to reducing carbon emissions and fostering sustainability through a series of measures that will be implemented over the next few years.

Yet despite its pledges, the fate of the Maldives lies in the hands of world leaders at the Paris climate summit, according to Maumoon.

"Our hopes are pinned on them," she said. "We know this is the final chance for the Maldives. And for the planet."

From best friend to mortal enemy

Isha, a young woman, holds up a sign that says 1.5 degrees C for Survival. (Photo: Heidi Fuller-Love, DW)

Isha and other activists say that limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius is not low enough

In downtown Male, at Sultan Park, protesters have organized various events as part of an international day of action on climate change.

Wearing flowers and carrying a hand-painted protest sign, 22-year-old student Isha worries for her country's future.

"We grew up on the sea, and now there is the possibility that we might be drowning, and pretty soon be under the sea," Isha told DW. "I don't think anyone wants our country to disappear, but it's very hard to march for anything in the current Maldivian climate."

Frustrated by what she perceives as the slow pace of action on climate change, Isha feels that there needs to be a shift in the way the problem is viewed.

"It is every government's responsibility to protect us from the risk of global warming," she said. "I think you should stop treating it is as just an environmental problem, and start treating it as something that affects our lives."

As talks come to an end in Paris, Maldivians will have to come to terms with the notion that the sea - which has always been their best friend - may well become their worst enemy.

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