World Environment Day
5 June 2023
Maldives Reefs, Seagrass Ecosystems and Natural Climate Defences Under Serious Attack
Reef ecosystems, seagrass meadows, mangroves, wetlands and island shelterbelts that are critical natural defences for local communities in the face of climate change are all under attack in the Maldives. Government initiated unsustainable and environmentally destructive development practices, particularly dredging and reclamation of the marine environment and indiscriminate deforestation of islands are decimating entire ecosystems which are the basis of local livelihoods and economies.
These living ecosystems are also the climate defences of island communities across the country.
The attacks on these finite natural ecosystems are direct attacks on the biodiversity of the marine environment, which are destroying not just our coral reef foundations but the balance of nature that sustains these complex living systems. These attacks also expose communities to the worst possible impacts of climate change as coastal modification destroys natural defence systems, subjecting communities to climate vulnerability, while the country is sunk into foreign debt. Communities are never adequately consulted or informed about the dangers to which they are being subjected by these short-term activities of the government, causing irreversible and permanent loss and damage.
Our reefs, marine biodiversity and their natural habitats are under unprecedented danger as global climate heating accelerates towards dangerous tipping points.
In early May 2023, the World Meteorological Organisation issued a statement reporting the imminent arrival of an El Niño which is expected to increase ocean heating to record levels. In 2016, 60% of the Maldives coral reefs were severely impacted by coral bleaching due to the El Niño effect and resulting increased ocean surface temperatures. Despite this recent devastation, the government is continuing to actively destroy coral ecosystems and putting reefs under impossible pressures, disregarding the science and the warnings.
While the list of ecosystem destruction activities across the country is too long, we make specific note of the following activities that threaten the existence and sustainability of our living environment.
(1) Destruction of Addu Atoll exposing Addu City to increased climate disasters
Addu Atoll was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2020. However, the atoll has been the site of multiple projects that have caused significant ecological loss and damage undermining its climate resilience. The current government’s MVR 1.3 billion (~USD 84 million) Addu Development Project to reclaim several artificial resorts and create artificial land destroying coastal defences of the islands of Addu City will destroy natural reef and seagrass defences. The project EIA provides a partial estimate of this loss and damage to ecosystems and economy between about USD 350 million to 850 million. It is the latest and most devasting of a string of unsustainable activities in the atoll, which endangers the whole atoll ecosystem irreversibly.
Concerns raised jointly by civil society organisations and the #SaveMaldives Campaign has been consistently ignored by the authorities. According to the approved EIA of the Addu reclamation project in September 2022, 20.88 hectares of reef and 98 hectares of seagrass meadows will be buried by the project, with devastating impacts on the marine environment. In April 2023, reclamation by the project contractor Van Oord of Netherlands caused mass death of marine life in the Hankede-Maradhoo coastal zone, a direct impact that raised no concern whatsoever by government authorities. The contractor appears to be immune from accountability, indicating the impunity with which such projects continue. We also note the blatant greenwashing of the project by the contractor to Dutch media, claiming to have the capacity to ‘relocate’ corals and seagrass meadows.
A few previous examples of irreversible ecosystem destruction in Addu Atoll include reef blasting in Meedhoo, the reclamation of Feydhoo in 2016 by Van Oord, and unlawful dredging activities during a harbour project in Meedhoo impacting an environmentally sensitive area in July 2022. The devastation caused to the marine environment due to these activities are not adequately monitored or studied. These activities appear to be benefitting foreign corporations like Van Oord and the politicians facilitating these activities for them. This is at the loss of sustainable natural local livelihood resources, loss of climate change security and exponential indebtedness of Maldives to foreign governments and banks.
We reiterate our continuing calls to the government of Maldives to stop the Addu Atoll ecocide.
These unsustainable activities also undermine the immediate and future climate change resilience and security of the communities of Addu City. For all these reasons, we condemn the permanent and irreversible destruction of Addu Atoll for perceived short-term political benefits of the current government on the run up to the presidential elections in September 2023.
We call on UNESCO to de-list Addu Atoll as a UNESCO biosphere reserve if Addu ecocide is not immediately stopped. The UNESCO declaration is nothing more than a meaningless label that has provided no meaningful protection to Addu Atoll’s marine protected and environmentally sensitive areas which are being decimated and permanently destroyed by widespread reclamation.
(2) Gulhifalhu Port Development threatens north Male’ Atoll and businesses using ecosystem services
The planned destruction of Gulhifalhu lagoon with devastating impacts to the north Male’ region is a debt project costing hundreds of millions of USD that is being conducted piecemeal, ad-hoc and without a comprehensive or comprehensible plan. Regardless of numerous EIAs, ESIAs and myriad reports published on the project’s official website (mainly by external ‘experts’ operating remotely), the project fails to recognise, address or account for the ecocidal devastation it will cause to the north Male’ region. The project EIA clearly shows complete disregard for stakeholder concerns. The Gulhifalhu project does not account for the loss of ecosystem services in the region, where more than 30 dive sites are expected to be impacted, with the complete loss of MPA Hans Haas Place, a protected area since 1995.
The project attempts to use the now obsolete tactic of ‘offsetting’ environmental damage by declaring other ‘protected areas’ which is a superficial paper-based activity by the government to justify ecosystem erasure to continue unsustainable infrastructure activities. The project does not recognise the loss and damage it will cause to Villingili reef next to Gulhifalhu, nor addresses the fact that the project would undermine the climate defences of Villingili, exposing the community to climate vulnerability. The project fails to acknowledge the loss of ecosystem services to existing small and large businesses, and fails to quantify that loss. Additionally, the project EIA categorically states there will be no compensation for any losses to others resulting from the project. The Gulhifalhu reclamation project has the characteristics of imposing the whims of political decision-makers and associated international corporations to the detriment and loss of livelihoods of ordinary people and other locally based businesses.
The project will increase impacts to the house reefs of existing tourist resorts in the region, which already continue to suffer economic losses due to dredging and reclamation in the region such as the ecocidal devastation caused by Hulhumale’ and Crossroads. The Gulhifalhu reclamation project plans to extract 24.5 million cubic metres of sand which will have devastating impacts to the region due to extensive sand extraction from an already decimated atoll seabed. The project has already destroyed coral cover on Gulhifalhu reef by mass removal and transportation of corals. The project contractor Royal Boskalis of Netherlands is an advocate of ‘artificial reefs’, which is a greenwashing initiative to justify the complete annihilation of sustainable natural reef systems to facilitate destructive multi-million dollar business activities globally. Boskalis is joined by luxury resort businesses that are partnering to freely exploit other reefs in Maldives to improve their own reef assets, while advocating business opportunities and tax breaks for coral reef exploitation. Available information suggests that the sand mining area for the Gulhifalhu lagoon reclamation is being exploited by multiple projects, raising questions about the amount of sand available. The request by parliamentarians for the results of the Gulhifalhu sand search survey was refused by the Ministry of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure, stating the information belonged to the contractor and not available to the parliament. The constant and high levels of sedimentation caused by the multiple projects in the area and the failure to monitor associated risks all contribute to the climate vulnerability of the Male’ region.
Environmental governance and legal accountability of the government to protect natural reef defences in the Maldives is failing catastrophically at all levels. The government has failed to account for the loss and damage Gulhifalhu reclamation will cause to the north Male’ region. The People’s Majlis has failed to address the government’s failure to uphold environmental laws including constitutional safeguards. The judiciary continues to drag its feet to adjudicate on the ongoing civil litigation case at the Civil Court of Maldives to stop ecocidal destruction and devastation of the Gulhifalhu lagoon and exposure of the north Male’ region to climate vulnerability.
We reiterate our continuing calls to the government and the authorities to stop Gulhifalhu ecocide. The government must do this to prevent exposing the north Male’ region and a third of the country’s population to climate vulnerability, ecological decimation and deprivation with consequent environmental, economic and social instability.
(3) SAMPA threatened with over-tourism and over exploitation
The South Ari Marine Protected Area (SAMPA) has been increasingly under threat of ecological degradation and damage due to ongoing environmentally damaging and unsustainable, short-term development activities. This is yet another example of the consistent failure to protect environmentally protected areas by the government and state authorities. In June 2022, the lagoon of Alif Dhaal Atoll Fenfushi was given away to a tourism industry tycoon as part of business dealings between a questionably rich business-politician and the government. CSOs raised concerns about the loss of sustainable marine ecosystem services and livelihood resources this will cause to the community of Fenfushi. However, these concerns are not recognised or acknowledge by the authorities. Consecutive governments continue to blatantly favour and hand over public assets to individual business tycoons while undermining community livelihoods. The Fenfushi lagoon is a community asset on which ordinary people and their families depend for food security and sustainable livelihoods.
Meanwhile, SAMPA is under threat from over-tourism as resorts in the region continue to over-exploit the area for their tourism dollar, while undermining the fundamental basis which makes that tourism dollar possible – the living reefs and the rich biodiversity of this MPA. We are extremely concerned to receive reports that resorts are extending their water and sewerage pipes onto the reef system of SAMPA, as evident from recent video footage from the area. This shows that the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Technology and other relevant authorities such as the Environmental Protection Agency are completely failing in their mandates to properly manage and protect SAMPA.
We have been observing the constant reports of the devastating effects on mega-fauna due to over-tourism in SAMPA. While the area is recognised globally as a whale shark aggregation site of significance, we are deeply concerned by the disregard to these gentle marine mammals by the tourism industry that is causing devastating injuries to the region’s whale shark population. The over-exploitation and mismanagement of SAMPA is reflected in the large numbers of speedboats and tourists being allowed to pursue individual whale sharks, undermining the ability of these nationally and globally important marine creatures to live in their natural habitats in the Maldives.
We call on the authorities to stop the destruction of SAMPA by tourism tycoons, and to properly investigate the destructive behaviours of individual resorts and the tourism industry as a whole that are undermining marine protected areas. Their frenzied activities for financial enrichment are destroying reef defences, community livelihood assets as well as the basis of the tourism dollar on which their own businesses depend !
We call on all relevant state authorities to urgently address over-tourism in SAMPA and elsewhere in the Maldives.
This is absolutely essential to protect the living natural defence systems of the country as we face uncertain futures due to potentially devastating climate change impacts. The current activities by the government and the tourism industry are focused entirely on increasing exploitation of our marine assets and public commons for the enrichment of the few right now. The disproportionate beneficiaries of this exploitation are foreign investors seeking short-term profits. This is being done through increasingly reckless and unsustainable practices that are destroying reefs and biodiversity on which our economy, food security and physical security depend.
And finally, the People’s Majlis declared a national climate emergency in February 2020.
The fact that the Majlis has failed to act on their own declaration is testament to the multiple activities of ecocide that are currently ongoing across the country with impunity.
The government, the parliament and the judiciary in the Maldives are all failing to act on the country’s climate change vulnerability by failing to take positive actions to stop the complete destruction of our reefs and living environment which are our natural climate defences. The promoted narratives of adaptation by coastal modification and hard engineering to profit foreign corporations are not in the country’s public or national interest.
The wanton destruction of our reef ecosystems undermine our food security and socio-economic stability in a rapidly heating world that threatens the existence of our living coral foundations and the biodiversity this sustains.
The concerns we raise today as we mark World Environment Day 2023 are a mere fraction of the countless acts of devastation that are being caused to the Maldives living environment and biodiversity. These acts attest to the failure of state authorities to practice sound environmental and accountable governance, uphold environmental protection laws to prevent the permanent and irrecoverable decimation of our climate defences
We call on all public officials, policy makers and political parties to reject ecosystem destruction and unsustainable development activities. We call on you to take heed of the science, and to protect the Maldives and its living natural defences to ensure our own ability and that of future generations to live and thrive on our islands.
We call on all Maldivians not to allow politicians to destroy our living environment on which all our lives depend.
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Addu Hankede-Maradhoo dredging and reclamation caused mass marine death in April 2023 (image : Google Earth)