UNFCCC COP27 ClimateStrike Maldives savemaldives

At COP27: All Climate
At Home: All Ecocide

by Dr Ibrahim Mohamed, 21 Nov 2022

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
Bob Dylan — “Masters of War”

A delegation of the Maldives is on the way home from Egypt, after the 27th COP meeting of the UNFCCC. After the much begging, pleading and warning to leaders of the world on the plight of the vulnerable nations owing to climate change impacts a consensus on loss and damage funding mechanism have finally been reached. Yet in the same month one of the largest dredging companies of the world has planned to dredge 5.63 million cubic meters (cbm) of sand from the intra-atoll basin of the southern most atoll and the smallest complex atoll of the Maldives called Addu. According to the initial EIA of this project, 6.9 million cbm of sand was to be dredged. Hence, about 1.2 million cbm of sand is now curtailed from the initial proposal, with a reduction of 18.6 percent from the previous plan. However, an area of 11.7 hectares, previously included under this project, is now reclaimed using 252,701 cbm of sand dredged from the lagoon by a Maldivian Company, and carried out without an EIA. Another 20.6 hectares of reclamation originally in this plan is now postponed, to be reclaimed under a different project.  Consequently, 194.2 hectares of new land is to be made under this project costing 85 million USD for dredging and reclamation.

Scrapping of 42.3 hectares from original plan is a greenwashing to make this dredging look like it has been scaled down, while only 10 hectares is reduced from the original project proposed to make 236.5 hectares of land. As a result, only 10 hectares of coastal marine ecosystem will be spared from permanent burial when all reclamations of Addu are completed. Hence, this greenwashed scaling down of the project only serves to reduce permanent destruction of a mere 7 percent of coral reefs and seagrass beds from the original plan. As a result, about 800 million US dollars’ worth of coral reefs and seagrass meadows worthy of sequestering 600 tons of carbon annually will be irreversibly exterminated. Even if some corals are relocated as proposed in the EIA, the ecosystems which caused to thrive them will be gone forever, while the survival rate of corals relocated to another atoll or another region of Addu atoll is uncertain. The seagrass beds which are worth about 4 million US dollars annually can never be relocated and will be destroyed permanently. In addition, the dive tourism industry could face severe losses amounting to approximately 60 million dollars annually. Hence, no amount of greenwashing will reverse the damages caused by this project.

Biopolitics of Land Making and Reef Burial

“Land making and reef burial” is a biopolitical scheme conspired as a part of “bigmanity” politics, to give land to capitalists on the behest of biological and ecological destruction. These environmental disruptions are deliberate in most cases and result in the destruction of the “islandness” or “jazeeraa vanthakan” and the ways of life and valuable natural resources of islanders. The ecosystems which are irreversibly destroyed by such schemes are interconnected and intertwined in the biogeophysical evolution of the Maldivian coral reef system over a millennium. The rhetoric and imagery of “Mini Dubai” type of development by irreversibly destroying these ecosystems is in fact a hysteria hyped by biopolitics to exterminate the essence of “Islandness” and the means of subsistence of islanders. Most of these reclamation projects have become white elephants, while a group of elitists become rich from these projects, which involves surveys, designs and building components, all of which can enable corruption and mismanagement of public money in various levels of governance.

When the products and services provided by coastal marine ecosystems which provide abundance and economic freedom for people is destroyed, they are forced to become wage laborers. For instance, loss of reef fishing grounds, bait fish grounds, and fish nurseries as well as beaches on the fringes of islands forces people to abandon their traditional livelihoods which sustained them for generations. This destruction is beneficial to the oligarchy and the elitists in two ways. One is availability of labor and the other is increase in the environmental value and hedonic price of their idyllic Robinson Crusoe Island “dollar traps”. Consequently, the rhetoric of “Mini Dubai” as the epitome of modern development concedes the role tourism tycoons play in setting the environmental changes, enabling the extermination of “Islandness”. While resort islands are manicured and pedicured to look as natural as possible, even on artificial islands, local islanders are hoodwinked to believe that their natural environment has to be destroyed and their coral reefs buried to create land for development. This rhetoric and imagery are the result of huge borrowings complimented with environmental indifference.

While traditional islandness and island life was less pervasive in terms of environmental destruction, modern development is having many undesirable impacts on the islands, especially owing to disruption of the intricate natural dynamics of islands. Reclamations undertaken without proper assessments indicate the disruption of entire coastal regimes in the atoll basins. Lessons learned from various coastal modifications demonstrate that such activities transform the resilience and vulnerability of islands. However, the extent of these impacts on the resilience and vulnerability of small islands from urbanization, land transformation and construction are difficult to assess and measure due to the slow onset of impacts and uncertainties arising from global climate change. Meanwhile the decision tool commonly used in the Maldives for development proposal is the EIAs. These are currently inadequate for many reasons. For instance, they are project specific and only focus on short-term impacts within the immediate boundary of project activity. Meanwhile the process itself is flawed due to malpractice and flawed review processes. For this reason, development related decisions are often politically influenced, undermining cost benefit analysis and long-term impacts of such projects. Consequently, development projects often destroy the environmental value of the islands, and their economic potential as well as resilience. As a result, huge amounts of money have to be spent to remedy the maladaptation resulting from the development projects, especially when they are conducted in haste to win votes. A case in point is the Airport of Hoarafushi which required millions of rufiyaa to make the project viable after commissioning.

Shedding Crocodile Tears in International Forums

Loss and damage refer to permanent financial and other losses incurred, due to extreme events as well as slow onset impacts resulting from climate change.  After lamenting on it for the past 30 years in all major climate conferences including the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC, an agreement has been reached by the big polluters promising to pay the victimized nations. However, the broken promises of rich nations are nothing new and may as well make this and might make this a pyrrhic victory as polluters can now use this to continue business as usual in emitting GHGs. The Maldives along with G77 nations always advocated richer countries to pay for loss and damage. While the Maldives strongly advocates for adaptation money, instead of transformative adaptation, the country focuses on short term fixes and reactive adaptation which are politically attractive and prone to maladaptation. In the meantime, SIDS are also now pleading donor countries to re-structure existing debts as a measure to alleviate the adaptation finance gaps.  The sovereign debt vulnerability of the Maldives has heightened owing to COVID 19 and the consequential printing of billions of Maldivian Rufiyaa. While Maldives is among the top debtors of China, borrowing from India has risen staggeringly and pundits fear it is now reaching unsustainable levels. Sri Lanka, the closest neighbor of Maldives, defaulted when the country has to pay 71% of the revenue for debts. While debt is not inherently bad, especially for crucial government investments, the problem arises when majority of debt money is spent on infrastructure projects lacking transformative adaptation. For instance, tar roads on small islands or harbors which are proportionally too large for a small population, or an airport which cannot be run and maintained sustainably, must be properly assessed via cost benefit analysis. Currently, the only decision tool for majority of infrastructure projects is based on political incentives. Long term strategic planning, cost benefit analysis, Strategic Environmental Assessments, Environmental and Social Safeguards Assessments, Sustainability Assessments, Health Impact Assessments and various other decision tools are lacking except for projects funded by multilateral banks. Even then Indian EXIM bank’s assessments are lacking for projects they have funded.

The dark side of development and maladaptation is a topic that is never spilled out on the international platforms. The politicians who travel in first class for these conferences spending millions from public money, often shed crocodile tears and come home to continue with their rent seeking predatory policies, enabling the extermination and destruction of the environment.

Ibrahim Mohamed is an environmental and social science expert specialized in climate change adaptation, with a PhD in environmental science, from the James Cook University of Australia. He researches on critical issues related to climate change including governance and policy, bio-geophysical aspects, food security, biodiversity and pollution. His general interests include creating sustainable human habitation for low lying islands through innovative, integrated, nature-based hybrid solutions, to adapt for future impacts of climate change.
After completing his Bachelor of Science, he received an Australia Awards Scholarship to complete his Master’s Degree on Protected Area Management, later completing his PhD under the same scholarship. He began his career as a professional science teacher and after working on rural islands, he found his true passion and moved to work in the environmental science and management sector.
After resigning from his post as Deputy Director General at the EPA in Maldives, he currently works as an environment and social safeguard specialist for the donor funded Greater Male’ Environmental Improvement and Waste Management Project executed by the Ministry of Environment.

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Photo (aerial view) : Addu City – Hulhumeedhoo harbour reclamation project conducted outside project scope, with irreversible impacts on an environmentally sensitive mangrove area (July 2022 via Save Maldives Campaign)