Maldives Pres: An Underwater Obama

Maldives Pres: An Underwater Obama

The Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean could disappear by the end of the century. Global warming threatens to raise sea levels, submerging the low-lying archipelago. Newly-elected President Mohamed Nasheed has therefore set himself the task of holding back the tide of climate change.

The Maldivian president is 1.58 meters (5'2") tall. Perhaps he was once a little taller, but his back was ruined in prison.

He has forgiven the people who hurt him. He now has a very different problem on his hands. At its geographic peak, his country is not much higher above sea level than his actual height, and on average it is about a hand-width lower. Apart, that is, from the huge plastic-flecked mound of construction rubble behind the power plant in Male, the nation's capital, although that doesn't really count. What does count is the fact that the Indian Ocean could rise by half a meter by the end of the century. At the same time, a coral atoll is growing at a rate of up to a centimeter a year -- provided the corals are left in peace, and waste isn't simply tipped into the sea. Nothing is particularly simple anymore, and yet politics demands simple messages.

IMAGE GALLERY 6 Photos Photo Gallery: Maldives President Battles Climate Change

That's how His Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Republic of Maldives, ended up in the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon around Girifushi Island, his nose just a few centimeters above sea level, for the world's first underwater cabinet meeting. "Mr. President!" calls an Indian journalist from Star TV, holding out a telescopic microphone like a lifesaving pole. "What will happen if the countries at the climate conference in Copenhagen fail to agree on binding CO2 levels?" "We'll all die!" the president replies. Everyone laughs. Afterwards there's curry and fish.

A Country Made up of 1,192 Islands

Everyone laughed when, at the tender age of 17, Nasheed said he wanted to become the president of the Maldives. His father sent him to Britain, where he earned a bachelor's degree in maritime studies at the University of Liverpool. Nasheed's dissertation was a draft concept for a local public transport system for the Maldives; a country that is 99.75 percent water, its modest landmass spread across 26 atolls and a total of 1,192 islands.

Living in exile in Sri Lanka, the then 36-year-old Nasheed and other opposition supporters founded a political party in the hope of ousting the Maldivian leader, Maumoon Adbul Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving autocrat. Gayoom was not amused by Nasheed's political aspirations, and had the upstart incarcerated 12 times for a total of six years, including 18 months in solitary confinement, where he was allegedly beaten and tortured. Amnesty International took up Nasheed's case, adopting him as one of its prisoners of conscience. He also survived a strange car accident.

Today Nasheed is 42 years old, and the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. The outgoing leader congratulated him. And the islands now have their first public ferry service.

"Mr. President, what's your message for the children of the world?" An environmental activist with elaborately tattooed forearms has worked his way forward to Nasheed and holds his video camera in the president's face. He says he has interrupted his honeymoon especially to meet the country's leader.

In recent months Nasheed has become something of a Dalai Lama figure for environmentalists. Al Gore refers to him when warning about the possibilities of forced migration as a result of climate change. Time magazine recently included Nasheed in its 'Heroes of the Environment' list. He's even had an audience with Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

A Plea to the UN

But all that was before Sept. 24, 2009, the day of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Barack Obama had spoken, so too had Muammar Gaddafi. Then Nasheed stepped onto the podium, a slightly-built man with neatly-parted hair and unremarkable features.

"I am extremely pleased to be here," his speech began, though it was more than a mere turn of phrase. "I have spent many of the past General Assembly sessions locked in a hot, humid, damp cell, with my hands shackled and my feet bound."

No-one applauded -- not out of ill will, but because UN delegates are rarely on the edge of their seat when a representative of the Maldives addresses them. It is usually a time to go for a coffee or to work on some files. Most of the seats were empty as Nasheed spoke, giving the assembly hall a light blue hue.

The Maldivian president looked much younger than his years, he could have been mistaken for a 20-year-old. "I assure you the full support and cooperation of my delegation," he told the global community. His tone was not easy. He sounded tense, halting, and a little too high-pitched. When he said the word "excellencies," his voice cracked so much it sounded more like "excellenciiiieees."

He spoke without notes about the values of democracy, which he said had to be carved in stone, not written in the sand. You could tell he had watched many speeches by his US counterpart. The raised chin, the pauses, the swift glances from side to side, and the sweep of the head before the end of a sentence were all reminiscent of President Barack Obama.

"Every beach (could be) lost to rising seas, every house lost to storm surges, every reef lost to increasingly warm waters," he said, his voice getting louder, and his articulation growing less clear. Nasheed said dwindling fish stocks threatened every job in the country, and every life was in danger of being lost to more extreme weather, making it harder and harder to govern the country "until the point is reached when we must consider abandoning our homeland."

 

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 Next Part 1: Maldives President Leads the Charge against Climate Change Part 2: Where Local Politics are Global Part 3: 'Everything's Going Down' Part 4: The 'Rising and Falling Country' Social Networks

� SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009 All Rights Reserved Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH

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IMAGE GALLERY 6 Photos Photo Gallery: Maldives President Battles Climate Change

That's how His Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Republic of Maldives, ended up in the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon around Girifushi Island, his nose just a few centimeters above sea level, for the world's first underwater cabinet meeting. "Mr. President!" calls an Indian journalist from Star TV, holding out a telescopic microphone like a lifesaving pole. "What will happen if the countries at the climate conference in Copenhagen fail to agree on binding CO2 levels?" "We'll all die!" the president replies. Everyone laughs. Afterwards there's curry and fish.

A Country Made up of 1,192 Islands

Everyone laughed when, at the tender age of 17, Nasheed said he wanted to become the president of the Maldives. His father sent him to Britain, where he earned a bachelor's degree in maritime studies at the University of Liverpool. Nasheed's dissertation was a draft concept for a local public transport system for the Maldives; a country that is 99.75 percent water, its modest landmass spread across 26 atolls and a total of 1,192 islands.

Living in exile in Sri Lanka, the then 36-year-old Nasheed and other opposition supporters founded a political party in the hope of ousting the Maldivian leader, Maumoon Adbul Gayoom, Asia's longest-serving autocrat. Gayoom was not amused by Nasheed's political aspirations, and had the upstart incarcerated 12 times for a total of six years, including 18 months in solitary confinement, where he was allegedly beaten and tortured. Amnesty International took up Nasheed's case, adopting him as one of its prisoners of conscience. He also survived a strange car accident.

Today Nasheed is 42 years old, and the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. The outgoing leader congratulated him. And the islands now have their first public ferry service.

"Mr. President, what's your message for the children of the world?" An environmental activist with elaborately tattooed forearms has worked his way forward to Nasheed and holds his video camera in the president's face. He says he has interrupted his honeymoon especially to meet the country's leader.

In recent months Nasheed has become something of a Dalai Lama figure for environmentalists. Al Gore refers to him when warning about the possibilities of forced migration as a result of climate change. Time magazine recently included Nasheed in its 'Heroes of the Environment' list. He's even had an audience with Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

A Plea to the UN

But all that was before Sept. 24, 2009, the day of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Barack Obama had spoken, so too had Muammar Gaddafi. Then Nasheed stepped onto the podium, a slightly-built man with neatly-parted hair and unremarkable features.

"I am extremely pleased to be here," his speech began, though it was more than a mere turn of phrase. "I have spent many of the past General Assembly sessions locked in a hot, humid, damp cell, with my hands shackled and my feet bound."

No-one applauded -- not out of ill will, but because UN delegates are rarely on the edge of their seat when a representative of the Maldives addresses them. It is usually a time to go for a coffee or to work on some files. Most of the seats were empty as Nasheed spoke, giving the assembly hall a light blue hue.

The Maldivian president looked much younger than his years, he could have been mistaken for a 20-year-old. "I assure you the full support and cooperation of my delegation," he told the global community. His tone was not easy. He sounded tense, halting, and a little too high-pitched. When he said the word "excellencies," his voice cracked so much it sounded more like "excellenciiiieees."

He spoke without notes about the values of democracy, which he said had to be carved in stone, not written in the sand. You could tell he had watched many speeches by his US counterpart. The raised chin, the pauses, the swift glances from side to side, and the sweep of the head before the end of a sentence were all reminiscent of President Barack Obama.

"Every beach (could be) lost to rising seas, every house lost to storm surges, every reef lost to increasingly warm waters," he said, his voice getting louder, and his articulation growing less clear. Nasheed said dwindling fish stocks threatened every job in the country, and every life was in danger of being lost to more extreme weather, making it harder and harder to govern the country "until the point is reached when we must consider abandoning our homeland."

 

� SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009 All Rights Reserved Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH

Find out how you can reprint this DER SPIEGEL article in your publication.

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