Spotlight

Treading Water: Climate Change, the Maldives, and De-territorialization

February 16, 2012

By Lindsay Hartley - The government of the Maldives has been leading the charge to draw global attention to the issue of de-territorialization, the complete loss of the nation's inhabitable territory due to climate change impacts. Continuing global warming threatens low lying islands and coastal areas with gradual submergence from on-going sea-level rise and rapid inundation from intensified tropical storms.  Many small island states risk territorial loss, but the Maldives are unique in that 80 percent of the Republic sits just one meter or less above sea-level.

To date, the Maldivian government has pursued measures at both the local and international levels to maintain the islands' habitability as long as possible. Nevertheless, the government has yet to create an official resettlement plan for its people. 

A coherent resettlement strategy is necessary not only to protect the Maldivian population, but also to help develop a broader global plan of adaption to deal with the most challenging international repercussions of climate change. A pre-planned relocation, for example, could take place voluntarily, and in advance of an island nation becoming uninhabitable.  The absence of a resettlement plan, on the other hand, could condemn hundreds of thousands of Maldivians to a forced migration in the face of possibly rapid land loss.  This latter scenario would place Maldivians at greatest risk, as forced environmental migrants have no long-term legal protection under the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees.  

Even if the Maldives develop a resettlement plan to contend with sudden storm surges or gradual sea-level rise, further questions arise regarding the nature, timeline, and location of resettlement. At what point in the de-territorialization process would the Maldivian people relocate? Would they move all at once, or in waves? Would all the nation's citizens migrate to a single location, or instead scatter to various resettlement destinations?

A key factor in formulating a practicable resettlement strategy will be the availability of land. Already, some high-ranking Maldivian government officials have floated the idea of purchasing land from India, Sri Lanka, or Australia, taking into consideration those countries' proximity, climate, and culture. However, as the global population grows and natural resource bases are further strained, what country would give up land to a newly homeless nation? Furthermore, even if land were available, it would need to be economically and environmentally viable for both the Maldivians and the host country before it could be considered a feasible resettlement location.

The currently accepted criteria of statehood further complicates resettlement planning.  According to the Montevideo Convention, statehood is determined by the existence of a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into negotiations with other states. If the Maldives eventually fall victim to rising seas, would they be able to maintain their statehood without tangible territory?     

The international community's decision on the issue will be a key determinant of Maldivians' resettlement options.  If the traditional definition of statehood stands, then the Maldivians will need to acquire new land to maintain sovereignty and citizenship. But if the Maldivian government cannot secure new land for its people, the population would become migrants or immigrants, an outcome that could cost them their collective national identity.

Conversely, the international community could decide that the Maldivians may maintain their sovereignty without a defined territory, following the precedent set by the Knights of Malta and governments in exile. Although resettlement would still be necessary, under these circumstances the Maldivian government would be able to advocate for the rights and well-being of its people, as well as continue to act as a full stakeholder in international policymaking deliberations.  

A third option, which would also allow for the preservation of Maldivian sovereignty without the acquisition of new land, would be the maintenance of the Maldivian exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Presently, under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, EEZs are determined by ownership of inhabitable land. However, if the international community allowed for a freezing of the Maldivian EEZ in its current state, this ocean territory could serve as the "defined territory" needed for statehood.

Although the scenarios surrounding territorial loss and resettlement are multifaceted, it is better for the Maldivians and the international community to tackle them early and directly, rather than leave them unaddressed. A collective discussion about population displacement and relocation can lead to more holistic and sustainable solutions. The alternative - continuing to view de-territorialization as a hypothetical challenge - may be easier in the short term. But in the long term, ignoring these risks may not only threaten the Maldivian nation, but also deprive the international community of an opportunity to pursue proactive climate adaptation.


Photo Credit: By thetravelguru, via Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/thetravelguru/6203635604/

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