Squeezed in a subway in Tokyo one morning in 1992, I wondered how many fellow commuters had seen the magnificence of underwater life. The previous day I had my first diving experience. I felt humbled witnessing the magic in the water, and knowing that human beings occupied only 30 percent of the planet.

For several years, work kept me away from diving, and I was repeatedly assigned by the UNDP to landlocked countries. I had seen snow-covered Mongolian steppes, sky-penetrating Himalayan ranges, and the barren Afghan-Pakistani border, but I started having dreams of blue oceans, white sand beaches, and warm weather. The dreams came true in October 2014, when I was assigned to the Maldives.

The beauty of the Maldives stirred my long-hibernating diving bug. And it wasn’t long before I took the plunge. With my instructor’s thumbs-down sign, I slowly sank into the deep blue water. Tropical fish look like a classic spring scene in Japan: cherry blossoms whirling in the air. Mantas, turtles, sharks, and colorful fish all swam around gracefully, as if divers did not exist. My 40-minute dive took me back to the humbling feeling I once had in the subway.

Diving has introduced me to a world I never knew, and I worry about its future. The corals were bleached badly in 2016, and the sea temperatures have risen because of the El Niño. When I recently returned to my favorite reef, I felt the number of fish had dwindled. Once vibrant underwater life looked rather dull. I hear horror stories about boats that transport waste from resort hotels dumping that waste in the ocean, even before it reaches the collection point. Plastic bags, ropes, and pieces of Styrofoam can be seen everywhere. It breaks my heart to see pictures of turtles tangled in ghost nets and drifting for days without food.

The marine ecosystem, critical to everyday island life and the tourism sector, is under grave risk. Coral bleaching affects fish habitat that in turn impacts food supply and peoples’ income. Tourism is the backbone of the Maldivian economy with many tourists visiting to experience the underwater life. If the photogenic, “Instagrammable” underwater beauty is no longer there, it can threaten the national economy. Actions are already being taken to tackle the challenges: Many passionate and committed Maldivians are working to protect the marine ecosystem and fight against climate change.

In 2016, I joined a Maldivian NGO ‘Save the Beach’ to conduct a beach waste audit. The process of collecting and weighing it by category was an eye-opening experience for me. Statistics show that the volume of waste has gone down 20% annually for the past few years, due to awareness raising campaigns. Community led beach cleanups are being practiced in many islands. At the national level, a more systematic waste management system is being rolled out across the country.

Many resorts and hotels are also taking actions to protect and conserve the fragile ecosystem. They are working with civil society and local communities to make islands and the surrounding reefs more resilient to climate change. I took an initiative to connect Save the Beach with the senior management of Meeru Island Resort and Spa resort. This new partnership resulted in the launch of the Coral Garden Program to restore and enhance the coral reef ecosystem surrounding Meeru Island. The program has planted over 3011 corals of 25 different species and covers an area of 100m x 18m x 6m.

I also had the opportunity to participate in the first Sea Turtle Protection & Awareness Festival organized jointly by local councils, Six Senses Laamu, and the UN. It was an amazing occasion to see local council members, school children, teachers, parents and police all joining together to raise community awareness of the importance of protecting this magnificent creature.

There are many more stories of how partnerships between the private sector and communities are paving the way for sustainable development in the country. In the era of the Sustainable  Development Goals, the private sector’s drive is especially critical to counteract the adverse effects of climate change – one of the biggest challenges facing the country, and the world.

There are many more stories of how partnerships between the private sector and communities are paving the way for sustainable development in the country. In the era of the Sustainable  Development Goals, the private sector’s drive is especially critical to counteract the adverse effects of climate change – one of the biggest challenges facing the country, and the world.

We have to act now. We have to make the protection of marine life central to everything we do as an individual, government, or the private sector. Having seen this stunning yet fragile ecosystem, I am committed to working alongside Maldivians and passionate partners to protect it. Let’s together transform challenges into opportunities in this beautiful country.

Written by Shoko Noda, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative of the Maldives.

If you would like to learn more about how you can work with UNDP to support communities and jointly take Climate Actions, please follow https://give.undp.org/campaign/maldives/c146736