THE Maldives will begin to divert a portion of the country's billion-dollar annual tourist revenue into buying a new homeland - possibly in Australia - as an insurance policy against climate change that threatens to turn the 300,000 islanders into environmental refugees, the country's first democratically elected president has said.
Mohamed Nasheed, who takes power officially today in the capital, Male, said the chain of 1200 islands and coral atolls dotted 800 kilometres from the tip of India is likely to disappear under the waves if the current pace of climate change continues to raise sea levels.
The United Nations forecasts that the seas are likely to rise by up to 59 centimetres by 2100 due to global warming. Most parts of the Maldives are just 1.5 metres above water. The President said even a "small rise" in sea levels would inundate large parts of the archipelago.
"We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere," Mr Nasheed said. "It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. After all, the Israelis [began by buying] land in Palestine."
The President - a human rights activist who swept to power in elections last month by ousting Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who once imprisoned him - said he had broached the idea with a number of countries and found them to be receptive.
He said Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.
"We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades," he said.
Environmentalists say the issue raises the question of what rights citizens have if their homeland no longer exists.
"It's an unprecedented wake-up call," Tom Picken, head of international climate change at Friends of the Earth, said. "The Maldives is left to fend for itself. It is a victim of climate change caused by rich countries."
Mr Nasheed said he intended to create a sovereign wealth fund from the money generated by "importing tourists", in the way that Arab states have done by exporting oil.
"Kuwait might invest in companies; we will invest in land."
The 41-year-old is a rising star in Asia, where he has been compared to Nelson Mandela. Before taking office the President asked Maldivians to move forward without rancour or retribution - an astonishing call, given that Mr Nasheed had gone to jail 23 times, been tortured and spent 18 months in solitary confinement.
The Maldives is one of the few Muslim nations to make a relatively peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy. The Gayoom "sultanate" was an iron-fisted regime that ran the police, army and courts and which banned rival parties.
Public flogging, banishment to island gulags and torture were routinely used to suppress dissent and the fledging pro-democracy movement. Mr Gayoom was "elected" president six times in 30 years - but never faced an opponent. However, public pressure grew and last year he conceded that democracy was inevitable.
Male is the world's most densely populated town: 100,000 people cram into two square kilometres.
Mr Nasheed said that without an emergency bail-out from the international community, the future of the Maldives as a democracy would be in doubt.
"It's desperate. We are a 100 per cent Islamic country and democracy came from within. Do you want to lose that because we were denied the money to deal with the poverty created by the dictatorship?"
Guardian News & Media