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On 27 March, the Maldives’ president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih ceremonially signed off on a land-reclamation project spanning 194.3 hectares of land in Addu City, part of the Maldives’ southernmost atoll, one of many signed during his tour of the atolls in the south. According to news reports, preparations for beginning the reclamation process are already underway. In contradiction to government-led demands for climate action overseas, environmental activists say the project will “effectively destroy” the biodiversity of the region, which holds UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status since 2020 for its one-of-a-kind reef structures, home to diverse marine life.
The Dutch company which was awarded the tender for dredging the land by the government, Van Oord (India), will carry out development through a direct line-of-credit facility from India Exim Bank. Their contract alone is worth over USD 84 million. The project aims to conduct extensive land reclamation in Addu in order to develop residential housing, commercial buildings and luxury resorts. Meanwhile, the work to build a new causeway linking Hithadhoo and Maradhoo islands was contracted to an Indian company named Afcons Infrastructure Limited to the tune of USD 147.1 million.
A report assessing the project’s environmental impact underscores “long-term irreversible” damage to the areas earmarked for dredging and reclamation. The resulting sedimentation from these processes will take a long time to flush out – adversely impacting the coral, reef, lagoon areas, and marine environment.
Days after the [Addu] land-reclamation project was signed, ‘Save Maldives’, a citizen-led conservation campaign, tweeted its shock and dismay about the project, calling it “a plan to totally annihilate an entire atoll system.”
The analysts used drone mapping to identify hectares of coral and seagrass meadows, which would be buried if not relocated elsewhere. Fish and turtle habitats, they conclude, are at acute risk of being upended. Observers say the land reclamation could also impact local tourism and dive schools as the areas are unsurprisingly recognised as some of the most sought-after dive locations, including the British Loyalty Wreck, an oil tanker which sank over 75 years ago and is often surrounded by a variety of fish including blue-fin jack, turtles, manta rays and even sharks. The other key industry, fisheries, will also suffer inevitable consequences because of the dredging-induced sedimentation and resulting impact on fish populations. Experts have noted that coral systems worldwide are already battered by bleaching, partly caused by warming seas.
Impervious to pushback
The environment ministry was “deeply concerned” about the planned reclamation project, according to the minutes of an online meeting included as part of the EIA, but was ultimately unwilling to intervene. Other officials have said that the review process is in motion and that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may “attach conditions” to the proposal if it is approved, although the planning and infrastructure minister, Mohamed Aslam, deems the project fit to continue, despite the environmental concerns expressed.
Aya Naseem, a marine biologist and co-founder of the Maldives Coral Institute, which aims to help coral reefs to survive and adapt to the changing climate, told me that the destruction of natural defence systems – in the Maldives’ case, its coral reefs – will compromise the country’s resilience and natural ability to adapt and survive in the changing environment. She urged decision-makers and island communities to think deeply about long-term resilience and to prioritise the environment and the coral reefs that sustain Maldivians: “We must find better ways to develop. Protection and strengthening of our natural ecosystems should be mainstreamed into development projects,” she said.
Environmental activists say the project will “effectively destroy” the biodiversity of the region, which holds UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status since 2020.
Days after the land-reclamation project was signed, ‘Save Maldives’, a citizen-led conservation campaign, tweeted its shock and dismay about the project, calling it “a plan to totally annihilate an entire atoll system.” The group believes that the project is exposing the atoll to climate disaster in the guise of development.
When asked about the plans to bring development to Addu City through the land-reclamation project, civil-society activist Humaidha Abdul Ghafoor strongly voiced her views against it. “Today’s politicians, like their autocratic predecessors, fail to exercise their duty of care for the Maldivian people,” she said. “Their doublespeak provides the clearest evidence of their complete disregard to the existential threats climate change poses to the Maldives. They remain comfortable in their abuse of executive power to permanently destroy the people’s livelihoods, resources, and climate change defences for business interests.”
The Maldives’ vulnerability to climate change should not shield governments from criticism over environmentally hazardous projects that are approved on its watch.
It is even more perplexing that the Maldives’ former president, Mohamed Nasheed, is internationally leading the calls for wealthy countries to waive debts owed to climate-vulnerable countries. But the government’s plans to push through a large line of credit in short-sighted hopes of boosting the economy is at the expense of the country’s environment and its economy.
Climate hypocrisy in climate emergency
The EIA mentions that the project has received support from the Addu City council and residents who believe there is a need for a large-scale land-reclamation project in Addu, being one of the smaller Maldivian atolls with a scarcity of land. This is akin to the government enticing communities to dig their own (environmental) grave and handing over a shovel. While many locals believe the project would boost the islands’ economy and increase its potential, this view isn’t shared by all residents – in February 2022, a local filed a case requesting the Meedhoo Magistrates’ Court, in Addu atoll, seeking to halt the planned project and prevent environmental degradation.
The Maldives’ vulnerability to climate change should not shield governments from criticism over environmentally hazardous projects that are approved on its watch. The government looks entirely mismatched from its ambitions to address the climate crisis, lacking a sense of urgency and valuing development over environmental impact.