In this nation of sandbars, global warming is not some dry idea best left to the scientists.
It's death by drowning.
Eighty percent of the Maldives, a sparkling sweep of 1,180 islands in the Indian Ocean, sits less than 3 feet above the water's surface.
That means that, under some of the more credible scenarios for rising sea levels, the entire nation could vanish, Atlantis-like, into the sea.
"We would be environmental refugees," said Hussain Shihab, the Maldives' former minister for environmental affairs. "If nothing is done, our country could be underwater sometime in the future."
The fear has penetrated the consciousness of this nation of 263,000 people, spurring talk and action of an intensity unseen in the West. And it has created a deep sense of frustration, that a nation of fewer than 3,000 carbon-dioxide-emitting automobiles could perish from circumstances it cannot control.
As representatives of about 150 nations gather next week in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate cutbacks in the output of the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming, few countries carry more urgent pleas than the 30-odd small island states of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.
'Facing a Goliath'
For such countries--the Maldives, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji and others--even a small rise in the world's sea levels could mean not just washed-out sea walls and eroded coastlines but national catastrophe and even extinction.
"We are not responsible for this problem, but we are the first to feel its effects," said Tuiloma Neroni Slade, United Nations ambassador from Samoa, a nation of islands in the South Pacific. "We are facing a Goliath."
With the most to lose, the small island states are pushing for the sharpest reductions in greenhouse gases. While the U.S. has proposed that industrialized countries begin in 2008 to reduce emissions to 1990 levels, the 35-nation Alliance of Small Island States is pushing for a 20% cutback from 1990 levels by 2005.
"We don't think that's unreasonable," said Abdullahi Majeed, the Maldives' deputy minister for the environment. "This is a matter of life and death for us."
While the exact nature and timing of the threat probably won't be clear for years, island countries such as the Maldives have every reason to worry. A five-year study by the International Panel on Climate Change, a group of top researchers from 25 countries, predicts that, by 2100, sea levels could rise anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet.
If the high-end forecasts come true, most of the Maldives would be swallowed by the ocean. Even the mid-range estimates--a rise of 20 inches--would devastate the Maldives, wiping away some islands, shrinking others, changing the shapes of still more.
If that happens, officials here say, the Maldives' booming tourism business, which accounts for 20% of the country's economic activity, would be devastated. The infiltration of seawater would kill the trees and plants that hold the islands together. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Maldivians would have to move inland. Many would have to evacuate their islands altogether.
Some Maldivians say they doubt that the West is willing to curtail its use of fossil fuels enough to make a difference.
"The rich nations will do what they want," said Sakeena Adam, 48, of Thulusdhoo, a tiny island where in some spots the ocean is visible in every direction. "Perhaps God will save us."
For now, the Maldives seems scarcely touched by the industrialized West. The archipelago stretches across the Indian Ocean in a panorama of pastels, each island surrounded by a halo of aquamarine. The translucent waters reveal schools of tropical fish. No building outside the capital is higher than the coconuts in the trees.
Yet a closer look highlights the Maldives' vulnerability. Strung out across 550 miles in 26 atolls, most of the islands take up less than a square mile. Some are smaller than a football field. Few have sea walls. Many of the isles, too small for permanent populations, serve single purposes. One island, for instance, is dedicated to oil storage. Another holds a prison. Another is a trash dump.
At Male International Airport, an island unto itself, the ocean laps both sides of the runway. Touching down there in a commercial airliner gives the sensation of landing on an aircraft carrier.
Residents of the Maldives say they have already noticed that their climate--two barely perceptible seasons of sultry winds and soggy monsoons--has already begun to turn.
Two catastrophic storms in the past decade caused more damage than any in recent memory. In 1987, one-third of Male, the Maldives' capital and most populous island, was underwater. In 1991, the runway was submerged and strewn with coral boulders, and the airport closed for three days. Dharavandhoo lost 1,000 feet of beach. Huraagandu, for a time, was submerged completely.
"We never had storms like that 30 years ago," said Amina Fulhu, 60, a resident of Thulusdhoo. "You cannot predict the weather anymore."
The 1991 storm caused about $80 million in damage--about 6% of the Maldives' gross national product.
Just what is causing the erratic weather is not clear, but fishermen say they find it increasingly difficult to forecast the weather. The summer monsoons have dragged on longer: While November is supposed to be arid, day after day the islands have been lashed by rain.
The islands have begun to prepare for the worst. While total submersion of the Maldives would take a century or more, the consequences in the meantime would be grave. So with the help of a $30-million grant from Japan, the Maldives is building a 9-foot-high concrete wall around Male to protect it from another big storm.
Other islands have already been ringed with breakwaters. The government has banned most coral mining because the stony skeletons act as a natural barrier.
Just as visible here is the government's campaign to make sure the citizens know about rising sea levels--and who is causing them.
Teachers in the oceanfront Kalaafaanu School, where salt and sand dust the hallways, teach their youngest students about global warming. Television Maldives, the nation's only channel, and the Voice of Maldives radio, hammer home the consequences of the greenhouse effect. Teens pedaling their bikes on Male wear T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Stop Sea Level Rise."
Even residents with little formal education can ramble on about the issue.
Feeling of Frustration
"The sea levels are rising because the snowcaps are melting due to the smog and pollution created by the rich countries," said Ahmad Nizar, a 42-year-old tuna fisherman who never went to school. "Factories, cars--we don't have those sorts of things."
The awareness has led to a feeling of frustration among many Maldivians, who grouse that they are suffering for a problem they did not create.
"We can't stop the West from polluting," said Mohammed Zahir, an environmentalist on Male. "We don't pollute much, but we are feeling the effects of it."
Several residents expressed dismay at the Clinton administration's proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels beginning in 2008. But some said they understand the difficulties in asking people to make do with less.
"The world will have to limit economic activity if we want to prevent a disaster," said Abdul Azeez, 40, a fisherman on Thulusdhoo. "But that is not going to happen, because every country, rich or poor, wants more than it has."
Despite the slow pace of efforts to combat the greenhouse effect, some Maldivians, such as Ali Rilwan, see a measure of hope. There may be a lot of idle chatter by the industrialized nations about global warming, Rilwan said, but it's a start.
"Ten years ago, we couldn't get anyone interested," said Rilwan, an environmentalist on Male. "Now, at least we've got their attention."
Filkins, The Times' New Delhi Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in the Maldives.