Plastic pollution on the beach in the Maldives. Photo: Hannie Meesters

Once every so often the Maldives makes the international news. With presidential elections taking place this week, it is about that time again.

Mostly, the Maldives is famous for its stunning marine splendor and luxury beach resorts (David Beckham is rumored to visit every year). With 1,190 small islands clustered in 26 atolls over 90,000 square kilometers in the Indian Ocean it is more sea than land.

But besides the politics, there is something else going on in the Maldives. While not immediately obvious to outsiders, despite the pretty postcards of blue lagoons and white sand beaches it is a country for which many of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are extremely urgent.

As you can imagine, with 80% of land lying less than a meter above average sea level, climate change and sea level rise are pressing concerns. Even by conservative estimates of sea-level rise due to global warming, 77% of its land could be lost to the sea by 2100.

However, a more immediate concern is the issue of waste management. Some beaches need to be cleaned daily so they don’t overflow with washed up trash. The United Nations has already warned that plastic waste, particularly in oceans, is becoming a “planetary crisis”. The top six countries mismanaging plastic waste are all in Asia, across the ocean from the Maldives. For the Maldives, heavily reliant on tourism and its ocean resources, it is a growing catastrophe.

Access to public services is another challenge. With high transportation costs and only small numbers of people on islands far apart it is impossible for the government to provide basic services everywhere. But people still need medical care (SDG 3), judicial services (SDG 16), electricity (SDG 7) and trash collection (SDG 11). To allow people from the outer islands to relocate closer to where the services are and accommodate the growing population, the government has built a new island next to its capital island Male. With only seven square kilometers and a third of the population, the capital city is already bursting at the seams.

With support from the local UNDP office, the SDG Unit in the government is taking on the Herculean task of reorienting the country towards a sustainable development path. As with other countries, it is not easy to generate enthusiasm and interest from everyone. Actors focusing on economic issues are particularly hard to convince of the need to take social and environmental concerns into consideration. While per capita national income and the Human Development Index scores have risen, the government is still the largest employer for its citizens and economic growth and jobs are key priorities for many.   

Enthusiasm has come from civil society organizations. They recognize the value of the SDGs as a global vision to be adopted and localized for the Maldives. They see a possible avenue for more broad scale adoption through the political parties. One of the Maldives idiosyncrasies is the fact that it does not have a national development plan; instead the country’s direction is set by the political manifesto of the party in power. To influence these, civil society has been working on a People’s Manifesto.

To help to bring people’s voice to the fore, UNDP plans to launch a Maldives MyWorld Survey 2030. The Survey will allow anyone to vote for their priorities among the Sustainable Development Goals and rate progress against the Goals they care about. If enough votes are gathered the MyWorld Survey can function as a powerful tool to keep tabs on what is important to people in the Maldives.

There is so much more to say about the Maldives. Did you know, for example, that among a population of 436,000, there are approximately 59,000 migrant workers, with possibly an additional 140,000 undocumented migrants (SDG 8, 10)? That it has to import over 80% of its goods, including staples like rice (SDG 2)? That almost every local meal includes some form of tuna caught in its own seas (SDG 14)?

Sustainable development is evidently a must for the Maldives. And the country is also clearly dependent upon how the rest of the world performs on the Sustainable Development Goals. This interdependence is one of the reasons that #NextGenUNDP is creating a global as well as national SDG Country Platforms to connect stakeholders, partners and sectors to achieve the SDGs.

But you don’t have to work for UNDP to do your bit for the SDGs. Combating climate change and consuming and producing more responsibly are actions each of us can contribute to. So, next time you take public transport or say no thanks to a plastic straw think about how you are helping countries like the Maldives, near and far.

About the author

Hannie Meesters is a Policy Specialist at UNDP's Bangkok Regional Hub.

Follow Hannie on Twitter: @Hanniemeesters

With special thanks to Mahtab Haider, Mailee Osten-Tan and Nasheeth Thoha 

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