Because time is running out on the adorable little islands of the Maldives

Living in the Maldives is living in one of two worlds. Either you belong to the capital – Malé, a micro-Manhattan in the Indian Ocean – or you are in the “islands”, among the quietest and most remote villages this side of the Arctic tundra.

It is in these places – far from the resort atolls of the archipelago, where Maldivians don’t actually live – that the country is choosing between two visions of its future, like much of the rest of Asia, but above all.

The outer islands are steadily depopulating, as the allure of making a living through tuna fishing and coconut farming along their crushed coral coasts wanes. The splendid isolation may be what attracts visitors, but it seems incompatible with the aspirations of islanders in a nation modernized by global tourism.

As Maldivians give up island life, the government feels compelled to continue building Malé, the country’s only real city. But Malé is already heavily grappling with the limits of human habitation. By some measures, it is the most densely populated island on earth, with more than a third of the country’s 520,000 people on territory that can be traversed on foot in about 20 minutes.

If more Maldivians move there, its physical structure will have to be radically reworked. Meanwhile, it is expanding wherever it can: The government is surrounding Malé with sea bridges to artificial islands filled with housing projects financed by China and India.

On January 22, President Mohamed Muizzu announced his otherworldly vision of an underwater tunnel between Malé proper and a land reclamation project in which Chinese investors will help build 65,000 housing units on what is now barely a sandbar .

Mr Muizzu, a civil engineer by training, said the tunnel would “ensure beautiful sea views” as commuters pass through it. (Feasibility to be determined.)

Humay Ghafoor, a researcher who campaigns against environmental degradation, said that “no one does any assessment” before commissioning “massive infrastructure” projects. This allows, for example, an airport to be built on a mangrove, destroying the entire island’s fresh water supply.

The Maldives are made up of a thousand islands stretched along a 550-mile axis, each a fragment of exposed coral that grew from the edges of a prehistoric chain of underwater volcanoes. These form rings called atolls, a word that comes in English from the native Dhivehi language. Most of the 188 inhabited islands have fewer than 1,000 residents.

The resorts – those airy villas floating on the turquoise sea – are all on technically “uninhabited” islands. The guests are foreigners and most of the staff are also mainly from India and Bangladesh. In a way, resorts are like offshore oil rigs, pumping out almost all of the country’s income. By design, they are separated from Maldivian culture and abstracted from their location in South Asia.

Even the typical inhabited island is full of sun and warmth and has access to a shallow lagoon, palm trees and perhaps a mangrove forest. The inhabitants are highly literate, many speak English and are connected to the rest of the world via the Internet, mobile data and long ferry routes.

Their traditions still survive. Perhaps every island except Malé has a holhuashi, a covered seating platform in the harbor, sometimes surrounded by hanging woven chairs. The men gather to rest at midday and exchange gossip.

There is no doubt that climate change will ultimately bring ruin to this country, most of which sits only a meter or two above sea level. But that catastrophe is thought to be a century or more away.

Instead, Maldivians are leaving the islands for the sake of their children, looking to Malé and the world beyond. When it comes to education and healthcare, nothing can replace city life.

Nolhivaranfaru, a fishhook-shaped patch of powdery white sand with a green, fertile core between its beaches, is like many of the Maldives’ inhabited islands. Flowering frangipanis stand on an Islamic cemetery near its docks, centered around a centuries-old shrine dedicated to an Arab pilgrim. It takes 25 minutes by speedboat to reach the nearest landmass and from there two planes to reach neighboring India.

This is a journey that Maryam Asima, a 30-year-old mother of twins, has undertaken at great cost and with personal hardship. She and her husband, the captain of a tourist yacht that docks 175 miles away, near Malé, had been unable to conceive. Two years ago, Ms. Asima and her sister, who was in a similar position, traveled to Kochi, India, a city of 2.1 million people, where they underwent 11 months of fertilization treatment alone in vitro.

Health care remains rudimentary even in the best-connected outer islands. Local clinic staff scoff at the idea of ​​one day providing IVF. They calmly say that even the most urgent care is beyond their means: any patient who needs a ventilator must be flown hundreds of kilometers away.

Ms Asima, now back on the island with her 6-month-old twins, says she is pleased with the results of her order. Her sister also gave her a nephew. Thanks to her encouragement, two other women on the island became pregnant the same way. The government has started offering $500 subsidies and free air travel for families who need to travel abroad for IVF.

She likes the “home feeling” of her island and hopes to send her children to school there, even if they have to travel to a nearby island to see a pediatrician. But this is not her first home: Ms Asima was born on an even smaller island, Maavaidhoo, abandoned after being submerged in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Many Maldivians have been on the move for a generation or more, leaving smaller communities to move to larger communities. More than anywhere else, those who can afford it go to Malé.

Thirty years ago, it was not unusual for families to send unaccompanied minors to live in Male on long ferry journeys of 20 hours or more. They stayed with distant relatives or even strangers and worked as housekeepers to pay for their room and board while attending one of the best schools in the country.

Island families still send their children to study in Malé, but they usually travel as teenagers by now; Better primary education is available even in remote places.

The cramped conditions of the capital are the first challenge they face. A compact grid of streets packs pedestrians, motorbikes, workshops and high-end perfumers like a miniature version of downtown Hong Kong. One-bedroom apartments rent for five times the starting salary of a government employee.

Ajuvad, a nervous, soft-spoken 23-year-old, arrived in Malé at age 16 to join his older brothers, six people crammed into three bedrooms. They are all professionals, with jobs as teachers and technicians. But they grew up in another world, a 36-hour ferry ride away. There, the beach was a five-minute walk away, with no roads or motorbikes, and their home was a four-bedroom house that their father, a fisherman, had built himself. Their mother made fish paste and sold it to neighbors.

Ajuvad, who asked that his last name be retained to protect his privacy, recalls the transition as “a real challenge.” Having to live without his parents and without an inch of space to study alone in silence, he said: “I thought my world had collapsed.”

Ahmed Abbas, a 39-year-old hardware salesman, had an easier time moving to the urban sprawl of Malé from a distant southern island 12 years ago. His family of six shares a two-bedroom apartment in a complex built by Chinese entrepreneurs, across a seaside bridge from the city proper. They spend only half their income on rent, and he drives into town, 25 minutes each way, twice a day.

Mr. Abbas studied and worked in South India for many years before settling. He’s seen enough of the world to appreciate his family’s perch, which they share with two lovebirds: small exotic pets are big business in little Malé.

But he still misses island life. At home it was “nice because the people are nice”, he said, “normal country people, all smiling”.