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Ibrahim Ameer, Maldives' Minister of Finance on complex challenges in the face of climate change
Ibrahim Ameer, Maldives' Minister of Finance.
As published in the 02/2020 issue of the OPEC Fund Quarterly.
OPEC Fund Quarterly: What are the Maldives’ current priorities when it comes to adapting to climate change?
Ibrahim Ameer: Maldives is among the countries most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. This is mainly due to the low-lying nature of our islands and dispersed geography, as evidenced by the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which left more than one-quarter of the inhabited islands with severe damage to infrastructure and one-third of citizens affected.
These vulnerabilities are further aggravating the development challenges facing the country, especially with our limited ecological, socioeconomic and technological capacities. As the Maldives is already facing the consequences of climate change, the government gives very high priority to investing in adaptation actions and building the resilience of our island communities.
Adaptation priorities are provided in the Maldives Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). They include:
Enhancing food security
Agriculture and food production are very limited in the Maldives due to land scarcity, poor soil conditions and limited water resources. The Maldives is a highly import-oriented economy with respect to its staple food requirements. Its scattered, unique geography results in tremendous barriers and added risks related to adequate storage and distribution facilities, especially when it comes to handling unexpected market conditions.
Considering the highly vulnerable nature of the Maldives, critical infrastructure requires additional protection from the potential adverse impacts of climate change. International and domestic airports and seaports, communication and healthcare facilities – in addition to island communities – are some examples that need climate-proofing, and this requires significant resources.
Mortalities due to vector-borne diseases is an emerging health challenge, while the incidence of waterborne disease is high during extreme weather events because some people have inadequate access to safe water and sanitation. Climate-proofing health facilities and enhancing emergency services is important. Building our health systems to address these issues and challenges requires technical, institutional and financial investments.
The Maldives has limited freshwater resources. In most of the islands, the groundwater is not suitable for use due to saltwater intrusion and poor quality. Climate change is expected to pose further risks to the availability, accessibility and quality of water sources. Rainwater is the main source of drinking water in many of the outer islands, whereas groundwater is used for other domestic purposes and agriculture. Changes in average annual and temporal patterns of rainfall have led to localized water stress in a large number of islands. This has required augmentation by desalination alternatives and transportation of water resources to water-stressed locations (mainly from the capital Malé).
The islands of the Maldives are low-lying and beach erosion is widespread causing significant loss of land and coastal infrastructure.
Safeguarding coral reef and biodiversity
Coral reefs are an important contributor to the economy, supporting tourism and fisheries. The reefs represent a rich biodiversity, providing food and livelihoods to island communities. This vital ecosystem is highly sensitive to changing sea surface temperature and other climatic factors. The situation in the Maldives supports the assertion that warming of the ocean surface leads to significant coral bleaching. In some instances, coral reefs surrounding the islands also are stressed because of land-based sources of pollution.
The Maldives has a ‘one island, one resort’ concept of tourism. The protection of beaches and coastal infrastructure is important to safeguard the tourism and related facilities, which represent massive capital investments.
Tuna fisheries are an important economic sector in the Maldives. Live bait is a prerequisite for the unique pole and line fisheries, which are sensitive to the monsoonal changes and climate variability. Tuna are expected to move to deeper waters due to impacts of climate change.
Early warning and systematic observation
Climatological measurements are limited due to capacity constraints and inadequate resources. Improving climate data collection, management and forecasting remains a critical gap area.
OFQ: What are the biggest challenges you face when trying to address these priorities?
IA: Sustainable finance remains a major challenge in addressing climate change. Domestic budgetary spending on addressing climate change is an additional burden when it comes to achieving our sustainable development agenda. Nevertheless, public finance is allocated to meet urgent and immediate adaptation actions. However, more international support is necessary.
The amount of budgetary resources we invest on climate actions has increased significantly. For example, under this year’s annual budget, we have allocated MVR 1.8 billion (approximately US$117 million) to address environmental challenges, and MVR 247 million (approximately US$16 million) for the promotion and dissemination of renewables. But this is not enough to meet our growing needs.
We also have to recognize our geographical challenges, which makes communication difficult and transport expensive. The government is making continuous efforts to increase adaptation actions and opportunities, and to undertake low emission development. However, limited financial resources, capacity and technology remain major challenges.
The harsh reality for the Maldives is that over 70 percent of our GDP is tourism driven – something that is exclusively dependent on the health and sustainability of the biotic and abiotic environment, which is under threat from human-induced climate change. We are in more need than ever of significant assistance for both adaptation and mitigation, as we have not only our environment but also our economy at stake here. Concurrently, the government is investing and making plans to invest more in other sectors for diversification, such as agriculture, which will create more job opportunities in the islands.
This will further strengthen the government’s resolve to decentralize and lead to import substitution in the longer term. Having said this, I would also like to highlight the strength and resilience of our tourism sector as demonstrated by the quick bounce back of our resorts after the 2004 tsunami. Most of our tourism properties are built on the foundation of sustainability and there is no single-use plastic on the properties. We have passed an ambitious law to ban single-use plastics nationwide by 2025, for which policies are being put in place even now.
OFQ: Have adaptation measures already significantly changed people’s everyday lives?
IA: We have made significant progress in sectors such as water. Most of the island communities depend on rainwater for their potable purposes. However, due to climate variability and changes, the islands are facing water shortages during the dry periods, which normally last three months. Therefore, the government has to transport fresh water to the islands at considerable expense. To address this, the government is building desalinated water supply systems with household piped connections in the islands. As of today, we have a coverage of more than 68 percent of our population. In addition, we are investing in emergency water supply systems in the islands by building community water harvesting facilities to be utilized during the dry periods. These developments have helped us to meet some of our adaptation needs and also to achieve some health benefits as well.
However, we still need to invest more to meet the needs of the remaining communities and also to build the resilience of our islands. Erosion is reported as the most significant environmental concern threatening the sustainability of our islands, for which we have a long way to go to address, as our nation comprises of 1,190 islands. A green tax is also charged to all tourists to the country, which is routed to a trust fund under the name ‘Green Fund’ set up to provide solutions to environment-related issues.
OFQ: How can the international community / development institutions such as the OPEC Fund best help in the short and longer terms?
IA: We would like to see the international community/development institutions expand their financial and other means of support to vulnerable countries like the Maldives to address our climate change challenges. Developed countries also need to increase their ambition and meet their obligations toward providing adequate financial resources to developing countries as per the international climate change regime. Although our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is among the lowest, we will be among the worst hit. There is a high risk of being submerged due to rising sea levels as a result of climate change. Similarly, the banks can also play a significant role by aligning their investments to support the international climate change targets – such as the 1.5 - 2 degree target – and support the implementation and enhancement of national climate commitments. They can also facilitate easy access to finance by removing some of the barriers in accessing climate finance.
OFQ: Please can you outline any examples of how working with the OPEC Fund has already helped with adapting to climate change?
IA: The OPEC Fund has always been a major partner for our development efforts. We are currently receiving support from the OPEC Fund to address our adaptation needs, such as for the Outer Islands Harbors, Water Supply and Sewerage Facilities Project and the Provision of Water Supply, Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Project (See article More progress in the Maldives). These projects are not only supporting us to address our climate change challenges, but also aiding us to achieve some of our socio-economic targets in the field of healthcare – signification long-term savings in this area leave us with more fiscal space for investments in other areas, such as renewable energy. To develop a resilient Maldives, we not only need to address our immediate critical concerns such as water resources and coastal protection, but also transition toward renewable energy. Subsequently, by ramping up investments in this area, we will decrease our dependence on fuel for electricity generation, which is heavily subsidized.
The above is an edited version of an interview conducted by email.
OPEC Fund Quarterly lead feature