Wading to school in Maldives

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Climate change is already having a major impact on the islands, including the lives of the country’s children.

By Eliane Luthi

DHIFFUSHI, Maldives – “When there are floods, we take our shoes and socks off and put them in our school bags,” says Fathimath. “We have to wade through the water to our classrooms.”

Fathimath’s school is on a small island about a 45-minute boat ride from Male, the capital of Maldives – and just 30 metres from the ocean. The only thing protecting the school from rising sea levels are a handful of coconut palms, some of which have already collapsed into the sea, and a line of sandbags packed under the school’s main gate. Even with this precaution, the area still floods a few times a year, covering the school courtyard.

“We can’t even use the main gate when there’s flooding,” Fathimath says. The water can be around a foot deep when it floods, forcing Fathimath and other children to wear rubber sandals to wade to class – or to abandon their footwear altogether.

Dhiffushi Island didn’t always flood like this, but using satellite imagery, local authorities estimate that around 60 metres of beach has been lost since 2015.

“During my childhood, the beach was full of trees,” Aishath Dheena, head teacher at Dhiffushi School, remembers wistfully. “There were dark green bushes so thick you couldn’t see through them. We’d build tree houses out of cardboard. But now, a big part of the island is missing.”

Rows of dark blue sandbags line the marina alongside concrete barrels and groynes – structures built to protect the shore. Water pumps also jut out from the shore, ready to churn floodwater back into the sea, while other machines stand ready to replace lost sand.

Maldives is front and centre of the climate crisis, with some projections estimating it will become uninhabitable as early as 2050 and disappear entirely by the end of the century. Sea walls and wave breakers are a common sight, protecting fragile islands that are being relentlessly lashed – and gradually overrun – by the ocean. Meanwhile, changing temperatures have seen an increase in deadly communicable diseases like dengue fever, while fresh water is becoming so scarce it needs to be shipped to some islands.

The school’s newest building was built on elevated foundations, but Aishath believes that even climate adaptation measures like this aren’t a long-term solution. “Realistically, the sea will be at the doorstep of our school in less than 20 years,” she says.

Shoreline erosion is already a severe issue for almost two thirds of Maldivian islands, a reality that has young people in the country worried about their future. A recent U-Report poll found more than three quarters of young people in Maldives were worried about the effects of climate change, while 92 per cent said they wanted support to take more action.

Fathimath’s father, Ibrahim, works for the electricity company and notes that power supplies are also being affected by climate change. “Distribution boxes get damaged by the floods,” he says. “That causes power cuts which can be island-wide, and we constantly have to repair and maintain them.”

Maldives has taken ambitious steps to respond to the climate crisis, including phasing out single use plastics by 2023 and committing to net zero emissions by 2030. But for a country that contributes only 0.003 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, national action won’t be nearly enough to reverse the bleak outlook for children.

“We must recognize the climate crisis as a child right’s crisis,” says Marjan Montazemi, UNICEF Representative in Maldives. “For children and young people in Maldives, climate change is a direct threat to their schools, their health centres, and their very survival. Children and young people must be given center stage in all climate negotiations and decisions, and the world must accelerate action to reduce emissions, invest in climate adaptation, actively work with young people and provide children with climate education and green and blue skills.”

UNICEF Maldives is scaling up its work on climate change, partnering with the Government to support climate education in schools, reduce plastic pollution through behaviour change campaigns, expand green and blue skills for young people and provide young people with the tools, support systems and confidence to take action.

Making children an integral part of the work around the climate response will be essential to ensuring that young people don’t lose hope for their future. Fortunately, Fathimath seems determined to play her part in finding solutions. After high school, she plans to study in the capital, but then return to her island – the easternmost in Maldives, where the sun rises first, and where the fish stew is famously fragrant.

“I know there’s a solution to this. We don’t have to lose hope,” Fathimath says. “We can all help our community solve this problem.”