Why aren't the Maldives underwater?
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Why aren't the Maldives underwater?

There is a popular misconception that there was a formal warning or statement in the 1980s or 1990s that the Maldives would be underwater "within a couple of decades".

The fact that they are clearly not underwater is a commonly used argument to deny that sea levels are really rising.

But no such "blanket" formal warning was ever made.

This is what actually happened, and what has been happening since ...

The Canberra Times "clip"

In 1988 the Canberra Times published a brief item that claimed that a Mr Hussein Shihab had warned that the anticipated sea level rise of 20 to 30 cm in the next 20 to 40 years could be "catastrophic" for most of the islands.

Unfortunately, exactly what Mr Shihab actually said is unknown, but it is unlikely that it was exactly what the Canberra Times reported as Mr Shihab was actually the Conference Co-ordinator for a subsequent conference that was hosted by the Government of the Maldives and funded by The Commonwealth and the Government of Australia, and the conclusions from the conference certainly did not correspond to what the Canberra Times claimed.

What did the conference actually conclude?

Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise

What actually happened is that in November 1989 there was a conference on sea level rise held in Male, in the Maldives. The conference was hosted by the Government of the Maldives and funded by The Commonwealth and the Government of Australia. The conference brought together delegates and ministers from 14 island states along with observers and participants from around the world.

As you can see from the proceedings, specific issues were identified for specific islands - and indeed for the Maldives overall - but it is not true that it was forecast that the whole nation would be underwater by a specific date.

Possible responses

Possible responses were discussed at the conference, and these included:

  • Abandoning islands;
  • Holding back the sea with dykes;
  • Building the land upwards.


The people of the Maldives have adopted some of those proposed responses, although taller sea walls have often been preferred to dykes.

Building the land upwards has even enabled the bulding of new airports.

But many islands have already been abandoned, and Human Rights Watch and other organisations continue to repeat the warnings about the threat of sea level rise. See the Climate Change section in this report.

Building fortress islands

So although the people of the Maldives have continued to keep their tourism industry going and most of their islands habitable, the challenge of sea level rise is still there and getting more difficult to meet.

This paper describes how the new President has decided to steer a new course in meeting this challenge by focussing on building "fortress islands".

The new island of Hulhumalé

In 1997 construction of a new island of Hulhumalé began, and on this page you can find out more about the building of the island and see "then and now" images of that area of the Maldives.

Hulhumalé is not the only island in the Maldives that has seen major changes since the 1990s. Reclamation projects have enlarged several other atolls in similar ways in recent decades. Among them is Thilafushi, a lagoon to the west that has became a fast-growing landfill and a common location for trash fires. Gulhifalhuea is the site of another land reclamation project that is opening up new manufacturing and industrial space.