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Evidence to Policy

How could low-lying islands cope with flooding and sea-level rise?

Dr Sally Brown
Dr Sally Brown

Did you know that 75% of Maldivian government coastal engineers trained at the University of Southampton? That’s an impressive percentage, but in reality it is a small number as the Maldives only has four coastal engineers! Situated in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives has a population of 350,000, that’s roughly equal to everyone living in Southampton and the Isle of Wight, living in 100 of the 1,192 islands roughly 1m above sea-level.

Creating an outsized impact in a small country uses many of the same skills as one would utilise in a large nation: You build relationships with key government staff, maintain those relationships by being reliable and relevant, and work to understand the needs and constraints of the policymaker. The difference is the civil service gatekeepers are fewer and the policymakers change less frequently. As such, I found you can reach high-level policy makers faster compared larger nations.

Climate change and sea-level rise

Mention the Maldives, and most of us imagine beautiful islands with soft white sand, water bungalows and amazing underwater wildlife. The reality for its population however is the threat of flooding in their densely populated capital city and elsewhere which will only worsen as sea-levels rise. Being an island nation, the Maldives are naturally prone to flooding from udha, large swell waves which travel long distances before reaching land, and break over the defences. The coastal engineers help protect Malé and other islands from flooding, and need to consider long-term conditions so they can understand how best to protect their islands.

I started working with the Maldivian government on an EU funded project five years to assess the impacts and possible adaptation or engineering measures to protect against flooding and sea-level, together with Prof Robert Nicholls in the Faculty of Engineering and the Environment. It was the first time I had worked with a developing nation, so I was excited to research a new environment. For the Maldivian government it was an excellent opportunity for them to learn more about the threat of sea-level rise, what the impacts could be, and the potential engineering or policy solutions that could be put in place to reduce long-term impacts, partly, as I later found out that the nation’s sole University had only been inaugurated that year.

Undertaking research and policy recommendations

As with any scientific investigation, it is important to understand what the situation is in the country now. I quickly realised that there was little basic data for the government to make decisions, or a flood warning system. Instead of focusing on the impacts of sea-level rise as originally planned, I had to take a step back and understand the oceanography first. With guidance from colleagues in Ocean and Earth Science, we set about understanding tide gauge records, and using hindcast records to extract wave data so that we could understand local oceanographic conditions. Hindcasting is like a forecast but backwards as mathematical models are used to estimate past events, and is particularly useful where limited data exists. We found that swell waves that occur approximately every 20 years result in severe flooding, and these could become much more frequent with sea-level rise. We visited and disseminated our results to three Maldivian ministries, and suggested that a wave buoy would be advantageous to record the sea state so they could better understand their sea conditions today instead of using hindcast data, and an early warning system would be advantageous to communicate potential flooding. Partly as a result of our research, together with other developments and international funding, both of these now exist. This is one small step in making the country less vulnerable to extreme events.

Generating impact

I found that the route to impact is different for researchers, like myself, and government officials. The Maldivian policy makers and engineers we met were keen to engage and highlight the threat of sea-level rise and flooding to the Maldives, but needed a more of an immediate ‘hook’ to raise awareness of the situation. Only with this increase in awareness can local and global actors can begin to change the facts on the ground. This means harnessing the media by creating news worthy ‘spectaculars’ , such as the former president holding a cabinet meeting underwater, to gain attention for small island nations on the global stage, or being regularly interviewed in popular newspapers to keep up pressure on partner nations. For researchers, influencing policy happens on different platforms by contributing evidence to the scientific debate, through on-line articles, reports, conferences or journal articles. The policymaker relies on the body of research to show the size and scale of the problem and to determine what intervention (as demonstrated by the need to data and deploying a wave buoy) is needed. The policymaker then leverages this evidence with international partners to create change through funding and global consensus building. This means the relationship is symbiotic - without the researchers the policymaker cannot substantiate their claims and without the policymaker the researcher cannot put into practice innovative evidence-based solutions to real world problems. Each has their part to play and each must have trust in the other in order achieve their common aim.



Dr Sally Brown

Sally is a member of the Faculty of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Southampton researching coastal environments, including the impacts of sea-level rise and adaptation, and has been working with the Maldivian government. Follow Sally on Twitter here.


Visiting the Maldives and discussing policy relevant research with the Maldivian government.
Visiting the Maldives and discussing policy relevant research with the Maldivian government.
Malé, capital of the Maldives. Credit: Laurens Speelman
Malé, capital of the Maldives. Credit: Laurens Speelman
Thoddoo, Maldives
Thoddoo, Maldives

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