I was brought up with an appreciation of our natural resources and the knowledge that we must not overuse them. From early childhood I learned not to litter for the purpose of doing my bit to keep the place clean. However, it seems like most people take the environment for granted. Simple things like littering are taken with the attitude of "someone else will clean it," or "out of sight out of mind." People find it funny to see me hold on to little things like sweet wrappers until I find a dustbin, and they harass me for this kind of attitude, but I have learned to deal with this.
It was about 15 years ago that I first came to know about climate change. The thought of my people losing our homeland is just too daunting. I went through a phase of denial where I did not want to think about it and I just wanted to enjoy life. But I could not just ignore climate change when I started seeing beaches disappear. I was scared when I noticed the increase in frequency and intensity of sea swells, which flood homes and farmland each year.
The Maldivian islands are tiny with an average size of 1.5 square kilometers. More than 80 percent of our islands are less than one meter (or three feet) above sea level. So imagine a three-meter wave crashing on an island so small and flat! With the recent 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia, a tsunami warning was issued to the Maldives. What concerned me most was our natural lack of preparedness. On national television they were telling people to go to higher ground, but I was thinking to myself, "What higher grounds do we have?!" Imagine the panic and helplessness people have when they do not know where to go. We all know there is no safe place for us. I felt so helpless.
I want my kids and grandkids to enjoy the white sandy beaches I have enjoyed so much. I want them to see the beautiful coral reefs with zillions of fishes and marine life, which always put me in a state of awe. My heart sinks these days when I see dead coral reefs, which are now becoming a common sight. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase in the atmosphere, the temperature of the ocean will increase, which means coral reefs will not survive. Coral reefs are our natural defense mechanism to protect our tiny islands from strong waves. They are also the home for the bait fish for tuna fishing, which is our main staple diet and one of our primary sources of income. Food security is a very real issue and an immediate threat for Maldivians, and climate change has worsened this situation. Our white sandy beaches are formed from coral reefs, which tourists love to see. As the coral reefs die, there will be less beaches and less underwater beauty for tourists to come and see, which means we would have lost our main income source. So when coral reefs die, we are doomed. I fear for my country, which God has blessed with natural beauty, but it is also a place with a rich cultural heritage -- my cultural heritage -- which is threatened to be wiped from the earth.
I have come to notice that when international people first meet me and find out I am a Maldivian, they often react with a comment about how our country is sinking. This is something I find hard to reply to as it is so real and daunting that I wish I would not have to think about it at all.
Because our island communities are so small and so far away from each other, politics can become personalized to individual islands. This increases our vulnerability to climate change, which has unfortunately become quite political. The climate change fight, to me, feels like I am struggling to swim and stay above water in an open ocean no matter how tired I am. But just as I learned to deal with the harassment of my peers for not littering, I am learning to deal with the struggles that come with fighting for climate justice. I plead to the world: Do your part to save my islands before it is too late, and before sea level rise impacts others in the future the way it impacts us today. I believe that every little bit counts and I will continue to do whatever I can to save my home.
Aisha Niyaz is the co-founder of the Maldivian Youth Climate Network. Although she was born and raised in the Maldives, she received her bachelor's degree in environmental management from the University of Queensland in Australia. She lives in and loves the Maldives.