From Maldives, with hope
Climate change has brought a sea of uncertainties for children and families in Maldives
“It’s scary to live knowing we may not have a place to call home in the next few years,” says Ishfau. “If world leaders don’t take urgent action, they better be willing to take us in as climate refugees.”
16-year-old Ishfau is from Huraa, a small island 20km north from Male’, the capital of Maldives. The island is surrounded by a sea wall, a last-ditch measure taken by the government to stop the ocean from swallowing more of the coastal lands. Her school lies somewhere in the middle, surrounded by walls that need support at the base. Education authorities decided to strengthen the walls around the school as a climate resilience measure, to prevent it from being destroyed by heavy rain or flooding.
“Back then, there weren’t many houses in Huraa. You could even count them on your fingers,” says Yusuf, Ishfau’s 82-year-old grandmother. Her words are accompanied by the clinking sounds of cowrie shells as her granddaughters move them around a wooden board. “The houses used to be built with palm leaves, and they could withstand all kinds of weather.”
The traditional Maldivian homes she mentioned have since been replaced by modern concrete structures to fend against the increasingly violent storms and floods.
The cowrie shells on the board were amassed by Yusuf when she was a 14-year-old teenager. The area she visited as a child to collect the shells is now long gone, just like the blue lagoons of Huraa, a victim of the rising sea levels.
The low-lying island nation has sped up land reclamation projects around the country for shoreline protection and tourism development. What is land reclamation, one may ask? Picture this: tons of sand being pumped from the ocean to create new land.
“Although they are defence structures, the sea walls are man-made, and we are messing with nature. It will have its consequences,” says Shafeeqa, Ishfau’s mother. The once natural and pristine beaches of Huraa, one of her favourite parts of the island, are now non-existent. The environmental impact on the lagoons, which were home to marine animals, coral reefs and other living organisms, is a whole different and a very saddening story.
“I grew up around a dense mangrove forest and huge beaches. I used to spend my days collecting seashells with my friends. But my daughters are growing up collecting plastic waste from the shorelines,” Shafeeqa says. “Some days I tend to think about what the future holds for my children when I am gone, and that is one of my biggest fears.”
Shafeeqa feels the educational curriculum of Maldives is not well equipped to help her daughters adapt to a climate-changed world. But she hasn’t lost hope. She gets it from Ishfau.
Greatly influenced by her mother, who is a primary healthcare worker, Ishfau grew up dreaming of working in the medical field. But ever since she attended a workshop on single-use plastic waste management, she has come back very concerned. “Ishfau has been rethinking about her career goals and tells me that she wants to do something to protect Maldives,” says Shafeeqa.
UNICEF has been consistently partnering with the government to support climate education in schools, reduce plastic pollution through behaviour change campaigns, engage young people in conversations around climate, and provide them with the tools, support systems and confidence to grow, thrive, and survive in a climate-changed world.
However, truth be told, Maldives cannot win the fight against the climate crisis alone. The future of the country and its people lies in the hands of world leaders and whether they abide by the promise to limit global heating to 1.5 °C. Tragically, for a country that contributes only 0.003% of the global emissions, a slight rise in the temperature could be a death sentence for Maldives.
Ishfau’s story, sadly, is not unique. With each passing time, hope becomes shorter in supply, especially for the most vulnerable families. For instance, whenever there is heavy rain, islands that lie as low as 1.5 meters above sea level get flooded-submerging classrooms, playgrounds and libraries of schools situated at the shores. For many, a journey to school involves wading through the floodwaters barefoot or with plastic slippers and praying they don’t sink knee-deep into the sand.
While climate change threatens their homes, livelihood, and survival, it’s the children who suffer the heaviest brunt. The climate crisis is a child rights crisis. Urgent action to lower the impacts of climate change on small island states will mean more children remaining in school, fewer malnourished children, and better and healthier lives for the world’s most vulnerable children.
As for Ishfau, she isn’t someone who gives up hope easily. Amidst the worries of an uncertain future, she is determined to make the world a better place for her sisters, her family and the people of her beloved islands. Maybe one day, the TV cabinet at her home will have a little space–somewhere between all her glorious achievements–for a collection of shiny cowrie shells she collected from the beaches of Huraa.
“We’ve lost enough already. Now it’s our job to preserve what’s left,” says Ishfau.