Ben Doherty in Male, Maldives, The Sydney Morning Herald(January 7, 2012)
THE President of what could be the first country in the world lost to climate change has urged Australia to prepare for a mass wave of climate refugees seeking a new place to live.
The Maldivian President, Mohamed Nasheed, said his government was considering Australia as a possible new home if the tiny archipelago disappears beneath rising seas.
''It is increasingly becoming difficult to sustain the islands, in the natural manner that these islands have been,'' he told the Herald in an interview in Male, the Maldives capital.
''So … if everyone else around Australia is so poor and unable to fend for themselves and have a decent life, would that necessarily make life in Australia any better? Would that be the castle that you can defend?''
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a sea-level rise of up to 59 centimetres over the next century, a level that would inundate most of the Maldives' inhabited atolls. Low-lying Pacific island nations, such as Kirabati and Tuvalu, would also face being flooded.
''If nations won't do good for themselves, they really must do good for everyone around, simply in your self-interest as well,'' Mr Nasheed said.
''Not necessarily because you're so nice, and so benevolent and good that you want to provide others with things.
''But I think it's really quite necessary for Australians and for every rich country to understand that this is unlike any other thing that's happened before.''
The country has established a sovereign wealth fund, drawn from its tourist revenue, to be used to buy land overseas and finance the relocation of the country's population of 350,000.
Australia, for its climate and abundance of space, along with Sri Lanka and India, for their proximity and cultural similarities, are the three countries the President has identified as possible destinations.
''They are the talked about countries, though we haven't necessarily had official conversations with these governments,'' Mr Nasheed said.
Eighty per cent of the Maldivian land mass - a string of more than 1200 islands, 200 inhabited, running 750 kilometres north-south in the Indian Ocean - is less than a metre above sea level. The highest point in the entire country is 2.4 metres above sea level, and already, 14 islands have had to be abandoned because of massive erosion by the sea.
Mr Nasheed said Maldivians want to stay but moving was an eventuality his government had to plan for. He said he did not want his people ''living in tents'' for years, or decades, as refugees.
The Maldives is not the first nation to look to Australia as a destination for its climate change refugees. A decade ago, the government of Tuvalu, north of New Zealand in the Pacific Ocean, requested immigration assistance for its population of 12,000 to move to Australia. The Australian government said its humanitarian obligations were to people who require ''assistance urgently''.
Mr Nasheed praised Australia's decision to adopt a carbon tax, describing it as a ''brave move forward''.
''That is the kind of progressive legislation we want to see from other countries,'' he said.
But other Maldivian government officials told the Herald Australia was ''destructive'' at the just-completed round of climate change talks in Durban.
Under the last-minute agreement reached in Durban, countries have agreed to begin work on a new global treaty to cut carbon emissions, to be signed in 2015, but not to come into force until 2020.