The Other Island President

Malé, Maldives

Aerial view of Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Photo by Shahee Ilyas (Own work).

It’s like something out of a science-fiction movie — a city emerging in the middle of a boundless ocean. But this isn’t a fictional place. It’s Malé, the capital of the Maldives, and it’s slowly disappearing under the waves.

This startling imagery comes from “The Island President,” a new documentary now playing in select cities. The film focuses on then-President Mohamed Nasheed’s tireless efforts to protect his country from inundation by advocating for global climate change action.

Nasheed is no stranger to struggle; before becoming the first democratically-elected leader of the Maldives, he was imprisoned and tortured multiple times by the previous government regime. As he began his presidential term, Nasheed began to see more evidence of erosion, groundwater contamination and other climate change impacts threatening to destroy life on these beautiful yet vulnerable islands. No spot in the entire country — almost 2,000 islands — lies more than 1.5 meters (5 feet) above sea level.

As a result, Nasheed has gone on to become one of the most outspoken supporters of immediate climate change action. The Maldives was one of the first countries to set the goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2020. Nasheed has traveled across the globe to meet with other world leaders and try to convince them to sign an international agreement to reduce emissions and find ways to adapt to climate change.

“It won’t be any good to have democracy if we don’t have a country,” he says in the film.

Nasheed’s approach is unusual, and his methods are unique; however, when viewing the film I was struck by how much in common he has with another island president an ocean away: Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati in the South Pacific.

Like the Maldives, Kiribati is an island nation that is struggling daily to keep back the tides. And like President Nasheed, President Tong has been a tireless voice for a country on the front lines of the most severe climate change impacts — changes so severe they threaten to not only affect millennia-old cultures, but wipe them out completely.

CI’s video team has just returned from almost a month in the Pacific Islands, including a stop in Kiribati. They filmed beautiful scenery and met some amazing people, but they also captured footage that reveals just how vulnerable these places are. In the clip below, you can see flooded villages and agricultural sites which can no longer be used due to sea level rise.

No matter how many articles I read about the impacts of climate change, nothing drives the point home like seeing it in action — even if only onscreen. Yet despite the fragility of Kiribati’s ecosystems, Tong is far from giving up.

Facing the disproportionate impact that climate change has had on Kiribati — a country with a minimal ecological footprint — President Tong has become a staunch advocate for marine conservation. Despite the country’s tiny land size, Kiribati has stewardship over a giant swath of ocean. With the help of CI and partners, in 2006 Tong established the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, a marine protected area (MPA) that has since grown to the size of California and is currently the largest MPA in the Pacific.

Molly Bergen

He has also been the impetus behind the Pacific Oceanscape, an initiative to collaboratively manage and foster sustainable use of a vast marine area by 16 Pacific Island nations. Improving international collaboration on fisheries management and other aspects of marine governance in this region should go a long way to improve marine health in an area that covers about 7 percent of the world’s surface.

There’s no doubt that the challenges facing leaders like Presidents Tong and Nasheed are daunting — even more so since Nasheed was recently ousted from power by a coup organized by supporters of his predecessor. However, with support from the global community, they and their efforts can persevere.

Molly Bergen is the managing editor on CI’s communications team.

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