November 11, 2008 2:00 am

Climate change drives Maldives to buy land

The Maldives will divert cash from tourism, to buy land in case rising sea levels submerge its low-lying coral islands, the vice-president-elect said yesterday.

Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik said the "worst-case scenario due to sea level rise would be that some or even all of our islands would become uninhabitable and we would have to look for alternative places for Maldivians to live."

A new sovereign wealth fund, modelled on those established in oil-rich Middle Eastern states, is "part of our longer-term perspective," Mr Waheed said. It will be preceded by an overhaul of state finances in the tourism-dependent country.

Eighty per cent of the Maldives' 1,200 islands - of which 200 are inhabited - are less than a metre above sea level.

Studies have said the Indian Ocean state could be submerged within 100 years.

The government of Mohamed Nasheed will be sworn in on Tuesday after the country's first democratic election, ending 30 years of authoritarian rule by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the president.

Mr Gayoom, who has been accused of human rights abuses and criticised for his tight control over the nation's 380,000 residents, has raised the link between climate change and the human rights of potentially displaced citizens in international forums.

But Scott Leckie, director of Displacement Solutions, a Swiss-based refugee consultancy, warned, "We don't know where they plan to buy this land or whether they have thought it through . . . Are they actually asking to re-establish the Maldives elsewhere?"

Other states with lowlying land, such as Tuvalu and Papua New Guinea, have already started to feel the effects of rising sea levels, Mr Leckie said.

A formal request was made by Australia's Green party in October for the country to grant special visas to Tuvaluan climate change refugees but the request was denied.

"The question [of relocation] needs to be sorted out by all 50 territories that stand to be affected by rising sea levels," said Mr Leckie. He added that there were "rumours Maldivian officials have already started to buy plots of land in Sri Lanka for the future".

Mr Waheed said the new government would seek international help to strengthen the natural barriers of the Maldives' coral reefs, and create artificial sections of reef as a buffer against rising seas.

It has also pledged to introduce solar power and seek foreign investment in other alternative energy technologies.

But like the previous government, Mr Nasheed has no plans to cut the polluting long-haul flights on which the Maldives' tourism industry depends.

Instead, his Maldivian Democratic party said it would introduce corporate taxation in the industry as part of a raft of fiscal reforms.

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