This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
For anyone heading to Indian Ocean beaches from colder climates, the region’s warm waters have an obvious appeal. But with sea levels rising faster here on average than in the Atlantic and Pacific, many of those beaches are at risk of being claimed by the tides — threatening the natural habitats and livelihoods of people living in coastal areas. This is a global problem, of course: sea levels worldwide have risen around 10cm in the past 30 years, with the rate increasing from 1.5mm a year through most of the 20th century to 3.9mm a year now. Projections for future sea level rises vary greatly, but when you’re in the Maldives, whose highest points rise to just over two metres above sea level, every centimetre counts.
Although it’s widely known that melting polar ice leads to rising sea levels, fewer people are aware of how ‘thermal expansion’ is also a key factor. Because water molecules above 4C spread out as they warm up, if you extrapolate that effect across an ocean, warmer water will noticeably expand in volume. Although it seems counter-intuitive, this doesn’t all get distributed evenly across the world’s oceans, and the expanded sea water tends to ‘pile up’ in places. Sea level rises are happening at different rates on different coasts, but in the Indian Ocean — much of which lies in the tropics — waters tend to be warmer than in any other ocean, and rising faster as a result.
One of the most direct approaches to tackling the consequences, if not the causes, of rising sea levels can be seen just to the north east of the Maldivian capital, Malé, where a reclaimed island, Hulhumalé, has been taking shape since 1997. It was intended to relieve pressure on one of the world’s most densely populated plots of land, and the fact the man-made island is two metres above sea level — twice the elevation of Malé and most other islands in the Maldives — means it also buys the population more time in its existential struggle.
Land reclamation of the kind that has created Hulhumalé is only possible in a few places, however, and comes with its own environmental problems — the dredging involved scoops sand from the centre of the lagoons and redistributes it onto the new island, damaging coral reefs in the process. It also doesn’t address the loss of what’s there already. Over in Mauritius, the government has estimated that half of the island’s white sandy beaches will be eroded within the next 50 years as seas continue to rise. A refuge centre for local residents opened this year in the east-coast village of Quatre Soeurs as a space to evacuate to during future record high tides and storm surges. Sea walls built of volcanic rock now protect some of Mauritius’s coastal fringes, but this is only a partial solution.
The best defences — whether in low-lying atolls like those of the Maldives or mountainous islands like Mauritius — are the natural coastal barrier of coral reefs. Efforts to protect them not only help to support some of the richest marine habitats on Earth, they can also assist in diffusing the power of waves during storms, helping to stop erosion. A cycle of so-called ‘bleaching’ has affected corals in the Maldives, as warming seas break down the algae that live in the corals and provide almost all their food. When the algae dies, corals turn into white skeletons, affecting all life on the reef and reducing its protective capacity.
Some coral species are hardier than others, however. Marine biologist Jamie Craggs, whose day job is running an aquarium at London’s Horniman Museum, recently travelled to the Soneva Fushi resort in the Maldives to help set up a coral propagation facility, the first of its kind in the country. “If we can spawn corals,” he says, “we can start selectively breeding hardier corals that can withstand oceanic and climate conditions in the future.”
Jamie is also a co-founder of Coral Spawning Lab, whose global clients include aquariums, universities and the tourism industry. At island resort Soneva Fushi, trained technicians working in the company’s mobile labs fertilise hardy coral in specialised aquariums before it is added to nurseries (essentially supportive frames) in the sea.But can even the most meaningful projects make a difference, given that the only realistic way for most visitors to reach Indian Ocean destinations is on long-haul aircraft that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions? Jamie recalls that when he completed his PhD on coral propagation he held a dim view of tourism, but he’s more pragmatic today. “I understood that you’re not going to stop the holiday industry,” he says. “What you can do is work with it to the best possible advantage.”
Shauna Aminath, the Maldives’ minister of the environment, climate change and technology, is well aware that tourism and related services contribute to 40% of the Maldives economy. In fact, her father has worked for many years at Kurumba Island Resort, the first to open in the islands in 1972. She says one of her earliest memories was watching a beloved breadfruit tree come down when a storm eroded the beach beside her home on the Addu Atoll.
Aminath argues the government has matched the innovation coming out of the country’s resorts. There are now strict planning laws for any new developments, along with regulations on wastewater treatment and bans on single-use plastics. “We’re also developing a net-zero plan that requires commitment from the resorts to achieve the target by 2030,” she says. “Resorts play a huge role in conservation because tourists come to the Maldives to experience its pristine seas.”
The next generation
Many grassroots organisations are also thinking about how tourism can be part of a sustainable future. In Mauritius, Gerald Ami and his wife Romina Tello run Mauritius Conscious, the country’s first sustainable tour operator. He remembers when he first realised people were prepared to fly thousands of miles to enjoy his home in the Indian Ocean. Ami was about six years old and would take the school bus from Pointe aux Piments, a former Creole fishing village on the island’s northwest coast, to the botanical gardens at Pamplemousses. “I’d see all the tourists and began to understand what the tourism industry was,” says Ami. “But it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I really understood the concept of sustainability, the impact of mass tourism and the danger of rising sea levels.”
Ami and Tello launched Mauritius Conscious in 2015 and partner with smaller, locally owned and environmentally conscious tour companies and guest houses. At first, they were pessimistic about the island’s prospects. Five years ago, Tello says she was depressed to witness the continuing abuse of fragile coastlines and the degradation of the coral reefs, highlighting concerns she had then about the future: how Mauritius’s natural wonders could be depleted and the exploitation of the reefs could leave nothing left. And while her husband was just as concerned, he’s more positive now. “When we started, these were just concepts that people were starting to understand because we couldn’t just carry on as we were,” he says. “Now I think we’re at the beginning of a very beautiful journey in terms of sustainability. It’s not going to happen overnight, but soon I think we’ll be able to say that Mauritius is a truly sustainable destination.”
The changes that have restored Ami’s faith in his industry are being enacted at a government and operator level, particularly as mid- to upmarket resort chains seek to make more meaningful strides towards sustainability. The Maldives and Mauritius are two major destinations, but versions of this work and investment are slowly emerging across a region that is watching as the waters keep rising. In Mauritius, Ami has new cause to be optimistic: he and Tello recently had a son. How does he see the future on his home island for the next generation?
“I feel that Mauritius will be a different place as a society,” he says. “I hope that everything we have started to do in the past decade will turn Mauritius into a destination where humans are in balance with their surroundings. I want nature to be omnipresent and not something scarce.”
Published in the Indian Ocean supplement, distributed with the September 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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