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Tiny island nation seeks dry land Add to ...

Wanted: a large piece of property, preferably tropical and empty, with room for 300,000 inhabitants.

Mohamed Nasheed, who took office this week as the newly elected President of the Maldives, announced that he will establish an investment fund with some of the country's tourism revenues to buy a new home for his citizens should global warming raise sea levels and submerge their picturesque but low-lying homeland.

"We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere," he told a British newspaper this week. "It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome."

The Indian Ocean country of 1,200 sandy islands about 800 kilometres from the tip of India rises just 2.4 metres above sea level at its highest point. Mr. Nasheed said that even a minor rise in sea level will flood parts of the country and turn residents of the 250 inhabited islands into environmental refugees.

He plans to set aside some of the country's $1-billion annual tourist revenues to acquire what could be described as an contingency country.

A former human-rights activist elected last month, Mr. Nasheed has already approached several countries - including Sri Lanka, India and Australia - about buying land, and said they have been receptive to the idea.

"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.

Hadi Dowlatabadi, a climate-change expert who holds a Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, agreed that it is likely that the Maldives will one day disappear.

"It depends on how Greenland melts, but easily within a century," he said.

If all of Greenland melts, Dr. Dowlatabadi said, sea level will rise seven metres, forcing the relocation of millions of people from islands and coastal regions.

But the threat to the Maldives exists even if climate change is not as drastic as feared.

Even if climate-changing emissions were stopped today, Dr. Dowlatabadi said, sea levels will rise by 1½ metres in the next 300 years.

"The Maldives have no other option but to find themselves another piece of land somewhere," he said. "This decision comes from the President's understanding that the political will to save them doesn't exist."

In Papua New Guinea, residents of the Carteret Islands have already had to relocate because of rising sea levels attributed to climate change. Residents of Tuvalu and Kiribati are also at risk of becoming climate refugees.

In February, the Alliance of Small Island States held a press conference at the United Nations, urging international support for projects that would aid their survival in the face of climate change.

Members of the 44-member alliance described the new reality of hurricanes, tsunamis and other weather phenomena that are already affecting their citizens, and urged the global community to adopt a "no island left behind" mentality.

But experts agree that relocation is the likeliest outcome, although the impact of moving an entire country would be devastating.

Dr. Dowlatabadi said people are often moved when dams are built, and said the original inhabitants of the Bikini Islands were moved to another Pacific atoll when their home became an atomic testing site.

"The problem is that people never, ever recover from that relocation. It's just far too traumatic," he said. "You lose your identity, you lose your homeland and a consequence is that people tend to have very high suicide rates."

Although Mr. Nasheed has expressed his desire to protect his citizens from becoming refugees, simply buying uninhabited property in Australia or another region does not mean that it can be declared a sovereign state.

"It becomes essentially a compound," Dr. Dowlatabadi said. "It's not a country."

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