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Published on March 12, 2024

Building a Resilient Community for the Risky Times of Maldives

This is a story of translational science and action research as well as how various agencies of the UN can work collaboratively to deliver more effective results on the ground. Climate models often are not able to capture granularities of multi-hazard risks that exist in atolls and islands of Maldives. It requires innovative applications of data science to downscale these models to visualise the risk not only in the present context but also in the future. At 1.5°C and 2.0°C warming, Maldives will be at a great risk. The adaptation gap will also be widened in its more climate-susceptible regions, namely its diverse atolls and islands.

The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and UNDP Maldives undertook a joint project for Maldives to move towards shaping a resilient future. ESCAP has capitalised on translational science to understand and visualise the changing geographies of the Maldives, its risk scenarios, and its people, settlements, infrastructure, and land use patterns in its diverse atolls and Islands. UNDP Maldives is bringing actionable research to the table to bridge the gaps between science, policy, and practices. Together, ESCAP and UNDP through this project present the pathways towards building a more resilient Maldives.



Globally, climate change is likely to impact the terrestrial and marine ecosystem and their services which will cascade through the human, built and natural systems. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Maldives, which are inherently vulnerable due to many socio-economic, geographical, infrastructural and environmental factors even under the 1.5°C global temperature scenario, will continue to experience severe reductions in their habitability due to climate change impacts. To reduce these risks, one of the most pressing and immediate needs will be to understand current risk scenarios and forecast future risk scenarios which can further guide optimal and contextual adaptation and mitigation pathways across local and regional levels. Currently, global data is available for future climate scenarios published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, due to their coarse resolution, they cannot capture the local nuances in the variability of future climate for small island countries like Maldives. Hence, there is a need for a climate risk assessment of Maldives that downscales climate projections to the sub-national level to understand unidentified risks and strengthen disaster preparedness through risk-informed governance.

Through the joint programme, “Strengthening National and Subnational Capacity for Sustainable Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation in Maldives,” funded by the UN Joint SDG Fund, the UN Resident Coordinator Office is exploring the possibilities to utilise translational science to understand the impacts of climate change in the context of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Maldives. UNDP (Maldives) and UNESCAP (SSWA) are the participating UN Organizations in this project. ESCAP has rich experience in understanding the science of climate and disasters (using IPCC climate projection information to assess exposure, vulnerability and risk) and translating them into policy decisions. On the other hand, UNDP Maldives has an operational background to take forward the science-based policy decisions into governance and implementation. This joint project will cultivate the expertise of these two natural allies to take science and policy into action and advise the government on possible entry points in legislation and constitution for climate change adaptation and mitigation in Maldives.


Key results

Under this project, UNESCAP is producing information on risk hotspots and vulnerable socio-economic sectors based on downscaled climate projection information. Figure 1 depicts the spatial variability of rainfall under different climate projection scenarios based on downscaled climate projection data. The data shows that the central to southern part of the country currently receives the highest amount of precipitation. Under climate change conditions, the annual rainfall is likely to increase all over the country, however, the highest increase is expected over the central atolls across all the scenarios. The increase in total annual precipitation may go up to 100mm in some places under higher emission trajectories. 


Figure 1. Spatial distribution of total annual precipitation under baseline and climate change scenario.


The populace of the nation directly experiences the immediate impacts of climate change-related events. Male city, the capital, is located in the central zone of Maldives and it is home to 40 per cent of the total population of Maldives. Under the climate change scenario, the city is expected to be exposed to very high precipitation and related impacts. 50 per cent of the total population of Maldives is likely to be exposed to intensified risk under the business-as-usual (SSP2) scenario and 53 per cent under a comparatively challenging scenario (SSP3) by 2060, with a maximum number of exposed people residing in the capital city (Annex.). 


Figure 2. Population exposure to annual precipitation under challenging scenario (SSP3) in the near-term (2021-2040) (left) and mid-term (2041-2060) (right) period.
Figure 2. Population exposure to annual precipitation under challenging scenario (SSP3) in the near-term (2021-2040) (left) and mid-term (2041-2060) (right) period.


Apart from Male, some of the islands which will need higher attention are Burunee (Thaa atoll), Kashidhoo, Thulusdhoo, Hulumale and Vilin’gili (Kaafu atoll), Boahuraa, Mulah and Veyvah (Vaavu atoll), Mahibadhoo (Alif Dhaalu atoll), Magoodhoo and Dharanboodhoo (Faafu atoll) and Burunee (Thaa atoll) (figure 2). Among them, Mahibadhoo, Kashidhoo, Thulusdhoo, Magoodhoo, and Dharanboodhoo have already suffered impacts from flood, cyclone and erosion-related problems according to NDMA, Maldives’ disaster database. An increase in precipitation can enhance the risk of multi-hazard and cascading impacts on the people and properties. 

Maldives has the lowest terrain in the world with more than 80 per cent of its islands being less than 1M above the mean sea level. Given the global sea level rising 3 to 4 millimetres per year, 31-50 per cent of the population is likely to be exposed to sea level rise and related events such as coastal storm surges and coastal inundation more frequently by 2100 under business-as-usual scenario (SSP2). With this fact, ESCAP looked further into the sub-national scenario to locate the hotspots of sea level rise in Maldives. Their analysis reveals that the sea level height is expected to increase more around the eastern part of the central atolls and the northern atolls across all the climate change scenarios. The risk intensifies in higher emission scenarios, creating high challenges for adaptation and mitigation. In many islands, the settlements and infrastructure are located and often developed in the areas with 0-3 m elevation without the prior knowledge of the risk (Figure 3). Hence, they are at growing risk due to sea level rise and related events in the absence of adaptation measures. 


Figure 3. Sea level anomaly under baseline and climate change scenario (left) and Urban areas with 0-3m elevation exposed to sea level anomaly and related events (right).
Figure 3. Sea level anomaly under baseline and climate change scenario (left) and Urban areas with 0-3m elevation exposed to sea level anomaly and related events (right).


Capacity developments

As a part of this project's outcome and in collaboration with the Resident Coordinator Office, ESCAP is also planning to hold an information dissemination session for the UN Country Team to provide the agencies with the latest information on the climate projections, associated risks and their impacts on different sectors such as land use, transportation, energy and population. This activity will ensure that the strategic planning of the active agencies in Maldives and their collaborations with government institutions toward achieving SDGs will take the latest projections of the climate change impacts into account, allowing for a more sustainable road map in their work. The following section provides a sample of risk information developed in the project so far.


Policy recommendations

Being a small island developing state, Maldives needs special attention and greater awareness to address disproportionate climate change impacts. The potential risks indicate that the adaptation measures need to be strengthened. 

 Improved risk information and integrated approaches for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction are imperative for Maldives. Such information can predict and assess hazards, risks, and vulnerabilities in advance using climate projection information and geospatial technology. Information on anticipated risks under various climate change scenarios at the island and atoll levels can help in disaster prevention and mitigation. It can also help in risk-informed sustainable land use development. Hence, it is highly recommended to upgrade and downscale hazard and risk information based on recent climate projections. 

 Having prior information on risks is not enough until it is effectively communicated to the concerned society and population. Risk communication through early warning systems can track, assess, and deliver timely information and reduce disaster loss and damage. Long-term outlooks can inform decisions on infrastructure and economic planning. For a thinly dispersed country like Maldives, the development of an efficient early warning system that can reach the farthest part of the country should be a priority.  

To address sea level rise and coastal flooding,  hard protection pathways have already been adopted, such as the construction of seawalls. However, in the long term, these measures may become increasingly ineffective. Nature-based solutions through the restoration and conservation of coastal and marine ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves can provide sustainable and economically beneficial solutions to sea level rise, coastal floods, and storm surges. Hard measures such as developing reclaimed lands higher off the ground in combination with nature-based solutions can also be implemented provided the development is risk-informed.



Shared socio-economic pathways (SSPs)a: Shared socio-economic pathways (SSPs) describe possible future global developments in areas such as population growth, economic development, energy use, and related climate change. There are 5 SSPs which are five narratives describing alternative socio-economic development pathways in the future. They are also described as “stories that happened in the future” based on certain assumptions.

SSP2-4.5 is the business-as-usual scenario i.e., where current development trends continue. The global surface temperature may increase by 1.5 °C by 2021-2040 (near-term) and by 2.0 °C by 2041-2060 (mid-term) compared to 1850–1900 under this scenario. In terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation, this pathway has intermediate challenges.

SSP3 7.0 assumes that there will be a continuation of current trends in economic growth, but with increasing inequality, political instability, and limited international cooperation. The global surface temperature may increase by 1.5 °C by 2021-2040 (near-term) and by 2.1 °C by 2041-2060 (mid-term) compared to 1850–1900 under this scenario. However, there will be high challenges for both adaptation and mitigation.



IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmote, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L.Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M.  Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Mathews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. In Press. 

Armstrong, J.S., Green, K.C., 2012. Forecasting Dictionary. The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.



The Joint SDG Fund's joint programmes are under the prestige leadership of the Resident Coordinator Office and implementing United Nations Agencies. With sincere appreciation for the contributions from the European Union and Governments of Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and our private sector funding partners, for a transformative movement towards achieving the SDGs by 2030.