Category: Environment

Open letter to the people of The Netherlands, from the environmentally endangered Maldives

This letter, penned by Humay Abdulghafoor, volunteer for the Save Maldives campaign, addresses the people of The Netherlands with a story little-told: how their nation’s business enterprise has produced another’s destruction and demise, through dredging, reclamation, and port development.
This letter, penned by Humay Abdulghafoor, volunteer for the Save Maldives campaign, addresses the people of The Netherlands with a story little-told: how their nation’s business enterprise has produced another’s destruction and demise, through dredging, reclamation, and port development.

January, 2023 

Dear Netherlands,

New Year’s greetings from the Maldives. You may have heard about our country: an earthly “paradise” that is home to luxury tourism. That’s the marketed image, representing a “sunny side of life”. We also have several, less sunny stories. This particular one is about the endangered and finite ecosystems of the Maldives that have an unhappy connection to your country, the Netherlands.

You and us – we are all in the same predicament, even if we are not in the same hemisphere. We are all experiencing a great earth-heating climate crisis that is breaking down global climate systems. Scientists tell us that we humans are causing this Earth crisis. The United Nations tells us the situation is “code red for humanity.” Our actions and inaction have been creating an existential and extinction crisis.

Of course, the Dutch people would be very familiar with what this means.

You will no doubt remember the landmark decision of the Dutch Supreme Court on 20 December 2019, the Urgenda Climate Case, which decided that the Dutch government had obligations to “urgently and significantly reduce emissions in line with its human rights obligations”.  All governments have these obligations, although most choose to do little or nothing. The Netherlands is very lucky to have a judicial system where redress is available in court for serious grievances raised by concerned people, against unlawful and irresponsible decisions of the government, in our time of catastrophic climate crisis.

The Urgenda decision seeks to protect not just yourselves, but all of us inhabiting the Earth.

While we in the Maldives may be thousands of miles away, this decision in the Dutch courts is a big deal.

The whole world knows today that politicians around the world have consistently failed to address the climate crisis with decades of failed and farcical international conferences. This is why the Dutch Supreme Court’s decision in Urgenda stands out.

As you know, global climate breakdown is an existential crisis for many of us living in coastal nations, especially low lying small islands like the Maldives. Most of our 1,200 or so islands are less than one metre above sea-level. Our islands are made of coral and sand. Every island is an organic, living entity, protected by a living reef-defence-system, sometimes with the additional security of seagrass meadows and mangrove ecosystems which, when healthy, are teeming with marine life and biodiversity. We are just beginning to understand the richness of this biodiversity, which remains poorly studied.

Less than a year ago, a species of fish new to science was discovered in the Maldives. Who knows how many more are waiting to be discovered?

But our life-giving ocean, marine life, and biodiversity which collectively make up our critical natural reef defence systems have been under increasing threats due to many factors involving destructive and unsustainable development practices. Many of our reefs and lagoons have been completely and irreversibly destroyed. You may wonder who or what is destroying the reefs of the Maldives? The simple answer is that, primarily, it is the government and political decision-makers of the Maldives. But the government has been able to do this with the help of global dredging corporations and banks, although today, Maldives also has its own state-owned company, MTCC Plc also doing enormous damage.

The leading giants of the trade are two notable companies, Royal Boskalis and Van Oord, from the Netherlands. They are the expensive and profitable tools deployed to destroy our living environment, irreversibly and permanently. This story is mainly about the activities of Boskalis.

Royal Boskalis has over a decade-long history of reclamation that has destroyed community reefs and livelihood assets in several islands of the Maldives.  Some of these activities are labeled as ‘climate adaptation projects’. The cost of that destruction is enormous, running into millions of US dollars of public debt, often loaned from the ING Bank of Netherlands. In 2010, Royal Boskalis and MT- Hojgaard of Netherlands engaged in reclaiming five islands in the Maldives at an estimated US$43 million, borrowed from the ING Bank of Netherlands. These are the kinds of funds that are not available locally to develop community-based initiatives that improve people’s lives. You may be surprised to learn that this reclaimed land from over a decade ago remains unused and unavailable to local people.

This is, of course, a problem of the Maldives government. The point is that the big reclamation contracts to big companies, paid with large amounts of public debt, continue with relative ease, while no funds are available to do anything with the reclaimed land. Reclamation destroys sustainable livelihood resources and undermines the basic security functions of the living island reef systems irreversibly. Once an ancient reef is lost, it cannot be brought back. The partial or complete destruction of the natural reef defenses exposes islands to erosion and climate change disasters.

More recently in 2019, Royal Boskalis was contracted to undertake the largest and deepest reclamation project thus far in the Maldives: the Gulhifalhu Port Development project, which is estimated to cost Maldivian taxpayers US$120 million just for the reclamation.  Notably, the project was contracted to Boskalis before an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was produced to understand its impacts. It was also contracted without a bid, which media reported was being probed by the Maldives Anti-Corruption Commission. Whether anyone has been held to account about such irregularities is not known in the murky governance environment of the Maldives.

Boskalis Beef

The Gulhifalhu project will dredge an area of 13.75 sq/km in northern Malé Atoll, extracting 24.5 million cubic metres of naturally formed biogenic sand from the ocean to reclaim the Gulhifalhu lagoon. The environmental and eco-systemic loss and damage of this project was poorly evaluated, and the loss and damage have not been properly costed environmentally or financially. This may be because the project’s initial EIA noted that the project was a foregone conclusion even before the EIA was commissioned. It is also a sad fact that the EIA processes in the Maldives are deeply flawed and do not serve the public interest.

What is also a foregone conclusion is that the project will destroy a marine protected area (MPA) in Gulhifalhu lagoon, called the Hans Haas Place and designated in 1995. It is also accepted that the project will negatively impact approximately 30 dive sites in the area, having significantly damaging impacts on reef ecosystems, including the reefs of several resorts in the area. The project is expected to destroy the last remaining natural reef freely accessible to local people in the area, located in Villimale island a few hundred metres from the Gulhifalhu lagoon. It will also negatively impact small businesses and fisherfolk.

In June 2020, when Boskalis first began dredging the lagoon, a significant sediment plume damaged the Villimale reef. However, concerns expressed by local people and civil society stakeholders about the project, which was submitted for parliamentary scrutiny, was largely ignored by the Maldives government and the parliament. Instead of protecting Gulhifalhu and its threatened surrounding marine ecosystems, the parliament’s Environment and Climate Change Committee instead chose to justify the project.

A few months prior to this, the Maldives parliament had passed a motion to declare a Climate Emergency in the Maldives. At the same time, the Maldives suffers deeply from political instability, poor governance, policy poverty, endemic corruption and even poorer environmental protections of its own finite natural resources and assets. This may be a surprise to anyone reading about the Maldives’ leading role at climate conferences and global victim-status from impending climate catastrophe. The story on the ground is far removed from that politically manufactured image of the ‘sinking Maldives’ with ‘no higher ground’ to climb. That political rhetoric is disseminated around the world by the international media, on behalf of well-connected politicians who receive copious amounts of column inches and broadcast coverage.

In June 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic while the country was in lockdown, Boskalis arrived on site and engaged in a greenwash initiative to “relocate corals” from the Gulhifalhu reef. The company said this was conducted as a CSR (corporate social responsibility) activity!

Is it really so noble of a global corporation taking on a multi-million dollar project financed with foreign loans that must be covered by public debt to offer CSR to that same foreign state? It is evident that this is part of the company’s marketing strategy of presenting an image of ‘eco-friendly’ credentials.

The notion suggesting that a reef can be ‘relocated’ is unintelligible, with no scientific credibility as any Maldivian or visitor to the Maldives who has seen our natural reefs would know. This idea is absolutely untenable, has no substance and is nothing but a corporate smokescreen. Coral gardening, involving the removal of coral fragments to grow elsewhere, is an experimental tourist attraction in some resorts in the Maldives, which is also a type of corporate greenwashing.  However, the project’s official website considers “coral relocation” a triumph of the project!

Billionaire Coral Migration

Due to the enormity of the destruction planned by the Gulhifalhu reclamation project, civil litigation action to stop it was lodged at the Civil Court of Maldives in September 2021, which remains pending to date. Sadly, the Maldives courts do not have a good history of protecting the country’s fragile environment or holding the government accountable for environmental crimes. This is so even if some of our laws on environmental protection are reasonably progressive. Unlike the Netherlands, the courts in the Maldives are yet to be tested to address environmental destruction and our common climate crisis. This is the case despite the country’s extreme vulnerability and position at the forefront of global climate breakdown. This is in spite of the Maldives’ political pleas to the world at international fora to act on the climate, through its projected image internationally as a ‘climate champion’.

A significant amount of inconsistent, opposing and opportunistic narratives are created by Maldivian politicians with short-term goals who willfully risk the health and life of entire ecosystems, people’s lives and sources of livelihood. But they cannot do this without the active support of global corporations like Boskalis and the ING Bank of Netherlands. As the European Union strengthens its laws and law enforcement to do due diligence on climate change related matters, European corporations are finding poorly governed nations like the Maldives to exploit.

In June 2022, undeterred by its  people’s concerns, the government of Maldives took out a loan of €101 million from three European banks, including the ING Bank of Netherlands, to continue with the second phase of the Gulhifalhu reclamation project. Boskalis is expected to be back in the Maldives in 2023 to inflict extreme damage to the north Malé region with the next and most destructive phase of the reclamation project. Since its initial estimate of 20 million cubic metres of sand use, the project has increased this to 24.5 million cubic metres using an addendum to the EIA in November 2021. What the project will eventually extract is anyone’s guess.

Gulhifalhu

This is a situation where information is withheld from the public and Boskalis’ sand-search survey for the Gulhifalhu project is considered a ‘trade secret’, even from the Maldives parliament!  We do not know the scope of damage this project will cause to the region when a massive dredging vessel deploys its destructive forces into a marine environment rich with life from the seabed to the surface. The after-effects of a string of expensive, historical reclamation projects under Royal Boskalis’ belt in the Maldives have never been studied. There are no funds to study the loss and damage. There is never enough funds to obtain accurate baseline data for these projects either. The funds are instead available from corporate banks for corporations like Boskalis to inflict permanent irreversible and unstudied damage at great financial and debt costs to the people of Maldives.

These are highly lucrative multi-million dollar projects, taking just a few short months for the contractor to impose untold ecological harm. The direct and collateral damage inflicted by Boskalis will be suffered by present and future generations of Maldivians. This will happen after the vessel has made its money and safely left our shores, leaving us to deal with the debt, destruction and damage as the climate crisis unfolds before us.

As the new year breaks in 2023, the news breaking in the Maldives is that two of the most damaging marine contractors from the Netherlands will be actively destroying critical marine ecosystems with unknown losses and damage to communities and people in the Maldives. Van Oord is planning to dredge Addu Atoll Biosphere Reserve, endangering multiple MPAs, marine habitats of mega-fauna such as manta rays and undermining the climate resilience of the entire atoll. Royal Boskalis will be preparing to destroy Gulhifalhu reef and lagoon.

These are the untold stories of Maldives on the frontline of the global climate crisis. As we become increasingly conscious of our interconnectedness on earth, it is necessary to tell the story of how one nation’s business enterprise has become another’s destruction and demise.

If you have come this far, thank you for reading. And thank you for Urgenda.

That decision carries with it a spark of hope for many.

Sincerely,

The Maldives, Indian Ocean

#savemaldives is a citizen-led environmental campaign by concerned individuals from diverse backgrounds who are extremely worried about irreversible environmental destruction in the Maldives.

This open letter was first published on Contested Ports. Re-posted here with author’s permission.

Death of a nation: toxic politics is sinking Maldives

by Ibrahim Mohamed

Maldives is among only six nations entirely made of coral atolls; composed of 1192 islands grouped into 26 natural atolls over 90 thousand kilometres, making it one of the most dispersed countries in the world. The population of 407,660 inhabit 188 islands with an area of 227 km making it also one of the most densely populated nations in the world (Duvat and Magnan, 2019). Magnan and Duvat (2019) in their study of 107 inhabited islands found that about 60 percent of them have a population growth rate exceeding 5 percent, while on 18 percent of those islands this rate is above 25 percent. They also found that anthropogenic drivers have caused rapid changes on the islands over the last decade. Consequently, the adaptive capacity of most of the inhabited and exploited islands to cope and adjust with climate change induced oceanic pressures has been highly undermined. The anthropogenic changes Magnan and Duvat highlighted as causing major destruction to the reef island system includes artificial island expansion with reclamation; hard engineered shoreline armouring; and sand mining. For instance, in the last decade islands with reclaimed areas increased by 51 percent, and the number of islands with hard engineered coastal protection more than doubled. These developments have direct impact on island coastal geomorphology, such as the destruction of reef flats, resulting in changes in sediment budget around islands and disruption of currents around the islands (Duvat and Magnan, 2019). The desire for fixed, sedentarised rapid infrastructure development with inevitable hard engineering solutions undermines the dynamic biogeophysical system’s capacity to adjust and cope with climate change induced pressures. Consequently, the biogeophysical system is pushed in to positive entropy resulting in the shifting of thresholds and tipping points to undesired states. 

Environmental interventions as a trade off 

The sedentarisation, permanent fixtures and hard engineering development projects involving the terraforming of the natural island systems annihilate their natural ability to repair and maintain themselves. It is an alien ontology to islandness, devaluing it as a cheap commodity to be exploited for short term benefits. Islandness is far from cheap – it is a culture and a way of life. Theoretically, islandness has been explained as a unique system of relationships underpinned by an array of sensory engagements of islanders, pertaining to their interactions with their environment (Mohamed 2020),. A major aspect of the Theory of Islandness is the non-representational dwellings perspective where the sociocultural dynamics within islands are essential for their adaptation to climate change (Mohamed, 2020). Islandness, synonymous with the local term “jazeeraa vanthakan”, is not just a way of life, but also a campaign slogan promoted by the incumbent government which pledged to make development more sustainable and environmentally sound. However, consecutive governments with their short-term planning for a five-year political term have set a trend of indulging in patronage and biopolitics with no regard to sustainable development as envisaged in Article 22 of the Maldivian Constitution which tasks the State with the responsibility to prevent destruction of natural resources. It requires development to be affected in ways that ensure intergenerational equity and environmental sustainability. 

Owing to patronage politics and biopolitics at the local level, the rapid human driven anthropogenic impacts related to unsustainable development are also being shaped by a new brand of politics driven by government’s desire to demonstrate visible achievements within their short five-year term.  Additionally, where the problem of island vulnerability to climate change induced impacts and absolute land scarcity is concerned, politicians view it from the perspective of patronage politics. These permanent fixtures and sedentarisation of islands at the cost of their natural dynamics is politically attractive given that the politicians can use it as an electoral incentive, and they can be displayed as symbols of development.  However, the costs of undertaking dredging and reclamation as well as hard engineered armouring of coast lines is prohibitively expensive and hard to reverse. For instance, in the last decade a staggering USD 18.5 million has been spent on shore line protection of 17 islands covering 10.3 kilometers. In addition, the cost of reclamation before COVID19 Pandemic was at a rate of USD 275,000 per hectare including the cost of coastal protection of the reclaimed area, and various surveys and EIA processes. Owing to budget constraints, the government has sought development loans and contractor financing in addition to pleading with donors to cover the costs of these projects, all of which have the potential to make their political standing strong. Recently the government secured a loan of USD 71 million from the EXIM Bank of India for such a reclamation project while also securing more money through contractor finance for the same project, according to the EIA report of the project.

Flirting with the geopolitical order 

Turning to donors for money and flirting with them according to domestic political interests, combined with its geopolitically strategic location, has made the Maldives relevant to the emerging new world order. The competition between China and India to increase their influence on the small island nations of the Indian Ocean, has placed these same countries in a precarious situation, while domestic politics become subjected to foreign policy divides looking to the East and the West. Owing to the maritime security interests of India in the Central and Western Indian Ocean and China’s Belt and Road initiative across the Indian Ocean, both nuclear powers are now at loggerheads on who gets to control the Indian Ocean. While China has already put Sri Lanka into a debt trap with huge loans for infrastructure, India has secured an important island of Mauritius as their foothold in the southern Indian Ocean. President Yameen, who led the Maldives from 2013 to 2018 formed close ties with his Chinese counterpart, securing financial assistance from China for various infrastructure projects including the now famous China Maldives Friendship Bridge which cost USD 220 million. The EXIM bank of China provided a loan of USD 68 million while the Chinese government granted another USD 126 million toward the bridge project. In addition, Chinese State Companies have also lent USD 421 million for upgrading Velana International Airport, the main gateway into the country. While ties with India frayed during Yameen’s leadership, the new government which defeated him came with India’s blessings in 2018 and speedily renewed the old India First foreign policy. India was eager to invest and increase trade with the Maldives. Currently, bilateral trade amounts to USD 290.27 million where the trade balance greatly favours India as of 2020 (Vashist, 2021). EXIM Bank of India also has given various loans including USD 40 million for sports infrastructure, while a staggering USD1.33 billion has been loaned for various development projects including in Addu and towards building the Greater Male’ Connectivity Bridge (Vashist, 2021). For India, ties with Maldives is critical given that 50 percent of India’s exports and 80 percent of its energy imports are transported through maritime routes within the Maldives. Moreover, the Indian foreign and military vision for an inclusive Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) requires a strong alliance with the Maldives. Consequently, the current government has abandoned romancing with China and is sinking inexorably into a sea of Indian debt. Opposition politicians have begun their dog whistling against the incumbent regime consistently, using the slogan of “India Out” to mobilize opposition supporters against the government. 

Debt bounty of economic warfare

Colonization and conquest of nations in the 21st century has unfolded under a new brand of war. War on terror or war for democracy, depending on where you stand. Most recent wars, while waged under such banners, have also exploited wealth and resources. For instance, crude oil, rare earth metals and other resources of victim nations become the bounty of their “saviors” to be pillaged and exploited with the western world view of nature as a cheap commodity. Such wars have caused huge losses to natural resources and transformed environments rapidly. On a par with such wars is the debt fed to incumbent regimes by larger economic powers, allowing them to strengthen their political competitiveness. The debt money is often used to make visible infrastructure for patronage politics. The huge undertakings of such infrastructure in the guise of development often results in maladaptation and destruction of natural resources, trapping the local communities in a vicious cycle of dependency for politicians. When the common pool of resources available for all, such as coral reefs, are destroyed for development, people lose their economic freedom and have to depend on predatory capitalism and political patronage for survival. It is precisely this type of capitalism that underpins the 50-year-old tourism industry of the Maldives where local communities benefit little from the billions of dollars generated by high end resorts. 

Neocolonial geopolitics and predatory capitalism versus biopolitics. 

The land reclamation of Addu is a major concern, and scientific wisdom puts it under the precautionary principle. The only decision tool for the environmental consideration of such developments is the Environmental Impact Assessment report which, despite being heavily watered down, shows clearly the inevitable loss of our environmental inheritance were the project to go ahead. The sheer scale of dredging it requires in a relatively small atoll will have devastating consequences on the environment, with rapid transformation of the entire atoll’s biogeophysical system. 

Addu has always been the sacrificial lamb for the elitist ruling class of the Maldives. The atoll is critically positioned at the very southern end of Maldives, making it invaluable in the event of warfare in the east and middle east. This makes Aduu attractive to any international actor with intentions of war or other maritime security interests. The biggest achievement of the incumbent regime has been the large cash windfall from India for allowing Maldives to become a part of India’s SAGAR vision. Given how much Maldives is in debt to China, the influx in cash from India has allowed the Maldives to avoid the same conditions that have hit neighboring Sri Lanka once China called in the debts. Crucially, this has also allowed the current government to stay in power. India has moved rapidly to establish itself in the strategic Addu, pushing the government to undertake large development projects in the atoll that strengthens Indian presence in the area. One such project is the land reclamation for Addu. Despite having the potential to become maladaptive, this project is being driven forward partly due to the availability of a huge loan from India and Indian political pressure on the incumbent regime. The biopolitics used as such a destructive means to an end may be tenable in the short term, but the irreversible damage done to the environment will have major consequences for generations to come. In a contemporary world on the precipice of great conflict, climate induced disasters and being caught in a debt trap, will not only create political chaos, it will also set the Maldives on the path to a dire future. 

(Un)Doing Development

Development in the Maldives is often about the un: unbalanced, uncertain, undesirable, unfit, unjust, unhealthy, unplanned, unrepresented, unsustainable and unsystematic. This tendency for (un)doing appears soon after major infrastructure projects are commissioned. An example are the social housing towers recently constructed on the island of Hulhumale’ . What was envisaged as a remedy for crowding has also come with the seemingly unexpected ‘side effects’ such as ghettoization and a sharp rise in social inequity. The focus on patronage politics in the development agenda means gaps remain in both legal and planning aspects. .Given the partisan environment of Maldivian politics and the tendency to put party before nation, the sustainable development envisaged in Article 22 of the Constitution becomes impossible within a five-year term. For sustainable development, envisaged in the Article 22 of the Constitution of the Maldives, a political term of five years is insufficient. What political parties and elected leaders aim for is to make development as visible as possible within those five years. Concrete thus becomes their favored choice to showcase their achievements. . For instance, paved roads, airports, hospital buildings, land reclamations, harbor development and many other concrete based infrastructures are erected to display as achievements against rival politicians. Consequently, scientific wisdom, nature and economics is often undermined or traded off to favor the most politically attractive options. For instance, development criterions are invented and manufactured as electoral incentives during elections, often with no regard to island needs and necessities or context. For instance, the majority of lands reclaimed in the past decade remain barren and unused, even though a land use plan is approved before the reclamations. 

For centuries, Maldivians relied on the sea for their sustenance. Fishing and seafaring is still considered as the primary economic activity. Until tourism became the major driver of economic growth, trading among islands was also common among the dispersed islands.  The vulnerability and exposure and the low biogeophysical thresholds in the natural system of the tiny islands of the Maldives makes it senseless  to create human settlements akin to mini-Dubais in the Maldives. However, short sighted politicians with five-year targets sell Maldivians the vision of development as epitomized by  Dubai, that Mecca to capitalism once alien to the island culture and environment of the Maldives. The Maldives does have poor soil and scarce freshwater in common with Dubai, but that’s where the similarities end. For one thing, it does not have the financial capacity to transform into a real estate haven for international markets. From a sustainability point of view, especially with climate change projections related to coastal hazards, making human settlements and tourism products with reclamations is untenable. 

Utopian dreams of climate smart islands

The dredging company which won the contract to protrude more land in to the reef edge of Addu Atoll by burying coastal ecosystems, envisions transforming Addu city into a utopian climate smart economic hub to attract a particular type of traveler.  This illusory comprehensibility of predatory capitalism which undervalues environment and ecosystem services as cheap by separating humans from the rest of the interconnected web of life is a western ideology alien to centuries old culture and islandness of the Maldivians. The spatiality of islands is a lure for “on-and off-island power holders” to manipulate them economically, socially and politically (Baldacchino, 2010 and Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016), especially when the geopolitical stakes are high. Consequently, for predatory capitalists, islands are suitable spaces for political and economic maneuvering and environmental exploitation (Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016). Terms such as “climate smart”, and “economically viable” are often coined by governments and investors for reaping economic benefits, while neglecting various social issues such as equal and equitable accessibility, social justice and economic freedom as well as ghettoization and widening of gaps between rich and poor (Grydehøj, & Kelman, 2016). The creation of land by filling coastal regions adjacent to islands also opens up the possibility to create exceptional regulatory spaces like special tourism zones which may favour the corporate elite while adjacent island communities may lose their economic freedom due to over-dependency on rich investors who will own the spaces for over 50 years. Consequently, reclaiming land through debt money is a freebie for global corporate elitists to take advantage and grab land at the behest of current and future generations who will pay for these debts.  

Conclusion

With the looming threats of climate change impacts and frequency of cyclones and storms developing in the Indian ocean, as well as food insecurity where ship to mouth is the norm, Maldives needs a respite. Even though climate change induced coastal hazards have increased, the impact is yet to become severe. Hence innovative ideas which enhance sustainability of islands are essential. The coastal and marine systems and the socio ecological systems of most inhabited and exploited islands are gradually reaching their tipping points. Hence, we need transformative innovations where technology is fully utilized. We must create hybrid solutions by working with nature-based solutions and hard and soft engineering. Instead of reclaiming and fortifying with hard armoring, we need to explore how we can enhance our islands’ ability to retrieve and accommodate for climate change induced hazards. We need to create and recreate edge conditions and explore the possibilities of developing over the water structures with minimal impacts on coastal geomorphology and ecology. It is time our policy makers accept that tradeoffs for politically attractive options have already undermined the capacity of most inhabited islands to cope and adjust with climate change. Consequently, we have to fight a constant battle against nature, which results in a huge financial burden. We can transform our islands by safe, small-scale hybrid, nature-based solutions and garner adaptation finance for such projects. We must become more flexible to building adaptive pathways instead of relying solely on hard engineered fixtures against the natural dynamics of our islands. 


References

Baldacchino, G. (2010). Island enclaves: Offshoring strategies, creative governance, and subnational island jurisdictions (Vol. 14). McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

Duvat, V. K., & Magnan, A. K. (2019). Rapid human-driven undermining of atoll island capacity to adjust to ocean climate-related pressures. Scientific reports, 9(1), 1-16.

Grydehøj, A., & Kelman, I. (2016). Island smart eco-cities: innovation, secessionary enclaves, and the selling of sustainability. Urban Island Studies, 2, 1-24.

Mohamed, I., King, D., & Cottrell, A. (2020). Adaptive Capacity for Climate Change in Maldivian Rural Communities. International Journal of Social Research & Innovation, 4(1).

Vasisht, C. (2021). India-Maldives Policy Brief. Vivekanda International Foundation. New Delhi. [accessed from: https://www.vifindia.org/sites/default/files/India-Maldives-Policy-Brief.pdf].

[photo credits and renders: Margret Ikeda and Evan Jones and the author]


Ibrahim Mohamed has a doctorate in Environmental Science and Management from James Cook University, Australia. He is a specialist in environmental social science related to climate change adaptation focused on small low-lying islands. He has a research interest in climate change impacts on small island communities and adaptation for post sea-level rise scenarios. He has published in various aspects related to climate change adaptation and mitigation in small island nations.

Maldives : Climate Doublespeak and The Great Deformation

Humay Abdulghafoor

Maldives is sinking – a nation in peril!

Maldives is climate vulnerable – fighting for survival on the frontline of climate change!

Maldives faces climate disaster dangerously on the brink of an existential crisis!

Maldives has no higher ground to climb to save its people!

Maldives has declared a national climate emergency!

Maldives calls to make ecocide a crime at the international criminal court!

Maldives enacts a climate emergency law!

Maldives represents climate ambition at the Climate Vulnerability Forum!

Maldives pleads to be “saved” at the UN FCCC COP, vociferously and incessantly every year without fail, trying “to be heard” by the world.

Maldives is a leading voice of the at risk AOSIS and the sinking SIDS!!

Maldives continues to tell the world about its existential crisis, a situation not of its own making, but created by “developed” nations and the great carbon emitters of the world, declaring : “We are paying with our lives for the carbon someone else emitted.”[1]

Make no mistake, stated “climate champion” of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed: “If we do not act now we will lose our coral reefs, we will lose our beaches, and I’m sure tomorrow it will be you.”[2] 

One would imagine that the Maldives, this unique earthly paradise pleading to the world to be saved from climate disaster will join any effort to save itself. 

That would be the logical action of anyone teetering on the brink of an existential threat.

But not the Maldives.

Self-identifying as unique in every way, including its millennia long history, culture, identity and its centuries old 100% Muslimness and great sense of absolute piety, Maldives finds itself unable to tell the glaring truth about itself, to itself. Instead, the country indulges in climate doublespeak internationally while dredging itself into its own early grave.

The leadership of Maldives, starting with the country’s apparently immortal leader Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, with his style of “development” of the country has always left a trail of irreparable damage to natural heritage and  ecosystems. His successors have followed him.  Each as destructive as the other, at the same time imploring the international community to take urgent action to save the Maldives.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in October 1987, a few months after a devastating wave surge caused significant damage to the Maldives in April that year, Gayyoom said, “we in the Maldives have seen and lived through grim experiences which could be the indicators of the dire consequences of global environmental change provoked and aggravated by man.[3]  In his wisdom, Gayyoom left a legacy of reclamation and destruction of pristine reefs and lagoons, destroying these natural defences as development solutions in his imperiled nation.  Seventeen years later, the December 2004 Asian Tsunami provided ample proof of the power of the Maldives reefs, mangroves and other natural coastal ecosystems to protect the country from climate events. These ecosystems effectively took the full force of the tsunami that blasted at its shores without warning at 500km/hour at “the speed of a jet plane” that December morning, saving countless lives and reducing the death toll.

Gayyoom is the great leader that “developed” Male’, the world’s most congested city slum to the ocean edges of its reef, exposing this low-lying capital city to climate disaster.  He is also the leader that created several other zones of ecocide, including the now infamous Thilafushi apocalyptic waste dump and toxic bomb on a once pristine reef, off the south-western coast of Male’.  Thilafushi is a disaster that has been oozing pollution, contaminating the ocean and its associated marine and human food-chains for decades. He also embarked on an allegedly “safe island” created by destroying another large pristine living coral reef system north-east of Male’, gobbling up nearby Farukolhufushi island in its wake.  Gayyoom, dubbed “a man for all islands” is the indisputable forebearer of the great deformation and distortion of the natural environment of the Maldives.

In 2008, President Nasheed replaced Gayyoom. The Island President outperformed Gayyoom’s rhetoric and doublespeak to tell the world about the Maldives’ vulnerability to global climate change disaster.  He rapidly rose to “climate champion” fame by holding an under-water cabinet meeting, to visually explain how Maldives could well become the next Atlantis.  He too became a leader of the great deformation, embarking on reclamation projects that made Gayyoom’s look like “sixth form projects”.[4]  Across the country, Nasheed launched a campaign of ecosystem degradation and decimation fueled by a political rhetoric of housing need and grand infrastructure developments that left communities bereft of their natural coastal defences.  Global dredging companies were handed multi-million dollar contracts from public debt, and mobilised quickly for “development”.  These trans-national companies happily destroyed the natural reefs and other coastal defences of communities. The communities, led by their saviour-politicians, seemingly unaware of the role these ecosystems played in their survival in the Indian Ocean. The two-millennia long historical indigenous knowledge of human settlement and survival in the ocean archipelago had become forgotten history.

Yameen Abdul Gayyoom arrived in 2013, embarking on an even grander scale of ecosystem degradation – simply because he was the President and he can, so he did. This particular Gayyoom enjoyed the services of trans-national dredging company Van Oord that decimated Maldives during the global coral bleaching peak year of 2016, “with care”, and impunity.  While the coral reefs bleached to near complete loss across the country, dredgers conducted funeral rites by allegedly conducting reclamation over a 600km project footprint, giving the reefs no chance, let alone to recover.  President Yameen is globally known for his involvement in Stealing Paradise, a corruption scandal of a magnitude thus far not documented in such detail in the Maldives. This Theft of Maldives is reported to have involved the liberal, generous – and criminal – distribution of reefs and lagoons to the easiest bidder who wanted a piece of paradise, intent to create money selling paradise, mostly by creating artificial islands requiring intensive reclamation, loss and damage.  Examples of these abound in North Male’ Atoll, with the involvement of global names such as the Waldorf Astoria. This wave of deformation of Maldives has transformed the visual natural beauty of the country to something unrecognisably ugly and unworthy of the label, “paradise”. The erased marine biodiversity and habitat loss is out of sight and out of mind, while resort developers busily green-washed their artificial dead zones.

Not satisfied with the nationwide acts of ecocide by global dredging companies like BoskalisMT Højgaard and Van Oord, President Yameen chose to invest in the country’s very own wrecking machine, a suction hopper dredger baptised “Mahaa Jarraafaa”, received from China in 2017 with great fanfare.  Its first victim was the island of Kulhudhuffushi in Haa Dhaal Atoll which is one of the largest such ecosystems in the country. The island lost its climate resilience to an airstrip, dispossessing sustainable community livelihoods of hundreds of families in the project’s wake.  The tarmac was laid in the middle of its ancient white-mud wetland and mangroves which made up the island’s groundwater recharge, flood-water drainage and climate defence systems. The island just happens to be the largest urban centre in the north of the country, located in a “tsunami high risk” zone.[5]  Kulhudhuffushi now experiences increased flooding and damage to property on a regular basis.  Civil society calls to conserve the wetland’s remaining part continue to be ignored. This case exemplifies the depth of (dis)regard for the Maldives’ climate vulnerability expressed by its climate-champion leadership over the decades. As reef systems were blasted and macerated by machines, the Maldives trembled under the pressures of dredging developments.  Young Maldivian blogger Yameen Rasheed (brutally murdered for his courage to express his thoughts) left us this satirical yet apt observation in his blog The Daily Panic in 2016. “Deriving perverse pleasure from blowing up a ten-thousand year old coral reef may seem excessively pornographic. But when accompanied by tea and refreshments, it is a downright adventure.”  

The impunity with which ecological damage was done in Yameen Gayyoom’s administration continued unhindered, following the election of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in 2018.  This latest island president is content with the ecosystem degradation inflicted by unchecked reclamation.  The administration engages in patchy public relations activities at opportune moments to ‘protect the environment’.  Declarations are made protecting specific areas, while advocating a policy of protecting “one island, one reef and one mangrove” in each of the 20 atolls in the country, which is closer to public mockery than public policy!  Not to be outdone by his climate champion predecessors, President Solih is yet another saviour who gives his own ghost-written speeches about the government’s desire to save the country’s natural beauty.  Speaking at the opening of the parliament in 2019, he said:  “To preserve the tropical beauty of the Maldives and safeguard the archipelagic nature of our island nation, the Government will give special priority to protecting our natural environment.”[6]

Exhibiting his definition of environmental protection, President Solih’s 3+ year administration has engaged the services of the long-established Maldives State owned enterprise (SoE) MTCC Plc to wreak havoc on the country’s natural environment.  The company celebrates its business of irreversibly undermining the climate resilience of communities as a matter of national pride.  Like other disaster-capitalist ventures, MTCC boasted record profits at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a trend which continues in 2022, making the President giddy with a sense of achievement and calling the company a “role model”.  What the narrative conveniently sets aside is the inconvenient truths of the irreparable harm MTCC has been consistently unleashing on the country, the actual cost of which is never counted or accounted.  These projects generate repeat business, as they leave the people of Maldives wide open and exposed to climate disasters that have to be rectified with more unsustainable remedial projects from public debt.  President Solih is the current climate-champion of the Maldives giving his full commitment to the great deformation of the Maldives.   His government is forging ahead with another record-breaking project that threatens to destroy over 2km of coral reef ecosystems impacting marine wildlife and habitat including several marine protected areas.  This is the government’s wonder-project, the Gulhifalhu Port Development project, contracted to Boskalis Westminster without a bid in 2019. The project is facing civil litigation in court at the moment.  The latest in the continuing acts of State sponsored ecocide is the sudden and ad-hoc initiation of a multi-million-dollar reclamation project to join Shaviyani Atoll Komandoo with its neighbouring island Mathikomandoo, on the eve of a parliamentary bi-election.  The climate resilience of this already destroyed island and its people is the last thing on the leader’s mind if at all, the priority being the parliamentary seat at stake.

A notable attribute of successive Presidents at the helm of the Maldives’ great deformation is the complete lack of interest to assess the damage they inflict on the country’s finite coral reef ecosystems, as they indulge in their doublespeak at international fora.  Maldives shows no interest to study its own ecosystem degradation, loss and damage, but stand eager to lead the call for others to act and provide funds to climate vulnerable nations, notably to itself.  Maldivian governments act entitled to such funds, with no semblance of accountability for its own self-inflicted destruction, evidence of which is collected and studied mostly by those outside the country.  This complete disregard to the realities of science is the real death-knell to the Maldives.

As the UN Secretary General announced “Code Red for humanity” and the UN IPCC heralds a bleak future for nations on the frontline of climate change, the Maldives is set to arrive at that place of irreparable environmental doom by expediting that horror on itself before the global climate systems do.  The Maldives is wilfully tipping itself into the climate crisis.  The climate champions of the Maldives are in fact, irreverent self-harmers, killing the nation’s own lifelines and immune system to sustain their immediate political and business greed, at the expense of the country and people they are elected to govern.

Maldives is being sunk by its “climate-champion” politicians.


[1] Comments by former Maldives’ President, Mohamed Nasheed, the CVF’s Ambassador for Ambition, following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report, The Climate Vulnerability Forum, [undated – circa August 2021], https://thecvf.org/our-voice/statements/president-nasheed-remarks-on-ipcc-ar6-wg1-report/

[2] Lecture by His Excellency President Mohamed Nasheed, at Freie Universiate [sic] Berlin, The President’s Office – Maldives, 11 March 2010, https://presidency.gov.mv/Press/Article/22422

[3] Address by His Excellency Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, President of the Republic of Maldives, before the Forty Second Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the Special Debate on Environment and Development, 19 October 1987, Friends of Maldives (web archive), http://papers.risingsea.net/Maldives/Gayoom_speech.html

[4] Words used by President Nasheed at a stakeholder function in Male’ describing coral regeneration projects in Maldives 

[5] Detailed Island Risk and Vulnerability Assessment, HDh Kulhudhuffushi, Ryan Pvt Ltd / Ministry of Energey and Environment, November 2013

[6] Unofficial translation of the presidential address, 2019, The President’s Office – Maldives, 7 February 2019, https://presidency.gov.mv/Press/Article/20617


About the author: Humay is a concerned citizen trying to raise awareness about unchecked environmental degradation in the Maldives. She is a volunteer for the Save Maldives Campaign www.savemaldives.net @SaveMaldivesMV