The Maldives government is endangering coral reefs in pursuit of urbanisation and opaque mega-deals with foreign investors.
This is the picture painted by divers, marine scientists and campaigners – and endorsed by two whistleblowers from the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After a 2016 ocean heatwave that killed 70-80% of the country’s surface corals, widespread dredging and land reclamation threatens their recovery.
Under president Abdulla Yameen’s “transformative economic agenda,” investors are being courted for massive resort and infrastructure projects. To facilitate this, the tourism ministry has taken over environmental impact assessments for resort developments from the EPA.
Ibrahim Mohamed, an EPA deputy director on secondment to James Cook University in Australia, said ministers now routinely overruled experts.
“If [a project] gets rejected [on environmental grounds] and the minister thinks it might be politically advantageous, they will go ahead with the project,” he told Climate Home by Skype. “People have a fear of rejecting the government’s decisions… The [environmental assessment] process is quite stringent, but in the end, it is prone to quite a lot of intimidation.”
One of the most dramatic interventions was on his home atoll of Addu, in the southern Maldives. Last November the ruling party celebrated as a reef was blasted with explosives – a practice not seen in ten years – to create a shipping channel. The EPA initially withheld approval but caved under pressure.
The haste to green-light investment threatens the vibrant ecosystems that draw tourists and sustain tuna fishing – the Maldives’ two main earners.
“If we neglect the environment… we will lose resilience,” added Mohamed, who is writing a doctorate on climate adaptation in the Maldives. “Most of these coastal modifications aren’t well planned.”
A senior source still working at the EPA, who did not wish to be named, backed up Mohamed’s assessment and did not comment further.
The need for development outweighs the risks, said Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, a spokesperson for the president’s office. Asked about the tourism ministry taking control of EIAs, he said: “It made sense to move the process to the ministry due to the fact that they deal day-to-day with the resorts.” Government projects remain within the EPA’s remit. In the Addu case, he said other options to open the channel had been exhausted and the amount of blasting was “minimal”.
Coral reefs are increasingly threatened by climate change. Last year, a turbo-charged El Niño event warmed the oceans, causing the third global bleaching event on record. The Maldives, home to some of the most spectacular marine life in the world, was not spared.
Dredging puts the reefs under further pressure, stirring up sand that blocks out light. Observers warn it is going ahead with little regard for the consequences.
Environmental impact assessments are “cut and paste,” said Shahina Ali, a recreational diver and advocate for biodiversity education. “In a time where we have had coral bleaching, the reefs are a bit fragile and when the reclamation is not done properly, it has a further effect.”
Hussain Rasheed Sendi, director of five dive centres, used to swim in Embudu lagoon, near Malé, as a boy. A nursery for marine life, much of it has been buried to create luxury beach getaways within easy reach of the international airport.
“This amount of land reclamation has never been done before,” said Sendi. “That is the scary part, you don’t know what will happen… Coral bleaching we can’t stop, but dredging we could at least give a break.”
Shiham Adam, director of the government-funded Marine Research Centre (MRC), acknowledged the ecological impacts of land reclamation.
“It would definitely not help to recover corals, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “When sand particles land on the coral polyps, it would cause stress.”
While he claimed the MRC had sometimes given “very strong views” on potentially damaging projects, overall he defended the practice: “We are reclaiming massive swathes of coral reefs, but once it is reclaimed, it can be a very nice stable area.”
Officials are optimistic the reefs will bounce back from last year’s bleaching, as they did within about a decade of 1998, the last event on that scale. Shihab added: “We cannot be expected to suspend all development initiatives in the meanwhile due to worldwide environmental factors that are sadly outside of our control. To do so would be a betrayal to the needs of the Maldivian people.”
“To suspend all development initiatives… would be a betrayal to the needs of the Maldivian people”
The stakes are high. Resort leases are worth millions of dollars. Government officials say the influx of cash will raise living standards. But large sums of money from such developments have previously gone astray.
The Maldives scores just 36 out of 100 on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, below the global average. National campaigners say the situation has deteriorated under Yameen, who took power in 2013 under contentious circumstances.
An explosive Al Jazeera documentary in September linked president Yameen to the disappearance of US$80 million from state coffers – the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history. He denies any wrongdoing.
Oversight of land deals is being weakened, rather than strengthened. The law was changed last year to allow uninhabited land or lagoons to be leased with no public tender process. Feydhoo Finolhu, a popular picnic spot for residents of the crowded capital Malé, was awarded to an unidentified Chinese company for $4m.
In the most audacious plan yet, Yameen is in talks with the Saudi royal family about a $10bn development on sparsely populated Faafu atoll.
“President Yameen’s regime has been characterised by ‘mega projects’ supposedly designed to help the people,” said opposition lawmaker Eva Abdulla. “But they are invariably, in the end, exposed as money laundering and embezzlement rackets. We have every reason to believe Faafu will be the same.”
A planned visit by King Salman this month was cancelled at the last minute, ostensibly in response to a flu outbreak, following protests against the mooted deal.
Pro-democracy NGO Transparency Maldives is demanding the government consult citizens before agreeing a deal of this size. “You can’t tell us: this is what the project is after you have signed the contract. That is just not acceptable,” said director Mariyam Shiuna.
Shihab from the president’s office said any large scale investment would be subject to parliamentary approval. The administration is “committed to sharing details” of any major venture “once initial detailed discussions take place”.
Hand-in-hand with the courting of foreign investment is a plan to urbanise the 400,000 population. Already, a third are crammed into Malé, an island two kilometres wide. The high-rise city makes a stark contrast with the nearly 190 islands inhabited by 5,000 people or fewer.
Souvenir seller Moussa Afeef’s story is typical. He and his family came to the capital for jobs, education and healthcare. But he misses home in the Maldives’ southernmost atoll, where people live by fishing and growing what fruit and vegetables they can in the thin sandy soil.
“It is very expensive in Malé. I have in my island a house, we can get fish for free,” he told Climate Home.
The government is focusing development on bigger settlements, according to housing and infrastructure minister Mohamed Muizzu. “You need a lot of investment every year in the government’s budget if you want to provide all the facilities to all the islands, so it is not sustainable to do that.”
He expects one in three islands to be abandoned, following a trend since the 1970s. In the latest relocation, a year ago, 170 people living on Gaadhoo were given cash grants and houses on Fonadhoo, the administrative centre of Laamu atoll. “It has always been a pull factor, we don’t force people to move.”
While there is no official plan to redevelop the deserted islands as resorts, they could be more valuable to outsiders, Muizzu suggested: “Our thinking is we should make the best use of these islands, because there is already some infrastructure, there are some buildings… why not make some use of it for industry or tourism or whatever?”
One of the factors driving migration is coastal erosion. The Maldives’ 26 atolls, ring-shaped island chains formed from the barrier reefs of long-collapsed volcanoes, are naturally in flux. Sea level rise is set to accelerate the impact of swirling currents.
Malé is defended from storm surges by a wall of tetrapods. On the other side of the airport a stretch of reclaimed land is 2 metres above sea level, higher than the natural islands. Known as Hulhumalé, this suburb is destined to outgrow the capital.
“It is helping us buy more time to become more climate resilient in the future,” said the woman in the marketing suite. A scale model shows a cruise terminal, theme park, high-rise housing and even a monorail. If fully developed, it is expected to house 240,000 people.
So far, around 40,000 people live in the first phase of the development, which was started in 1997 and welcomed its first residents in 2004. Guesthouses and cheery cafes along the seafront cater to internal travellers and budget tourists. Two jetskis zip alongside the beach, through the rain. The rest is empty save for a few diggers and piles of building materials.
Pumping sand from the lagoon floor to shore up coastal defences or create islands is technically straightforward, but its impacts can be complex. It disturbs benthic fauna – creatures on the seabed – and stirs up sediment, harming coral health, said Michael Sweet, a marine biologist at Derby University who has published research on human impacts on reefs.
“Islands are known to ‘move’ but we as humans do not like this,” he observed. “My only advice would be to not fight nature and limit dredging activities as much as possible.” Where dredging is seen as essential, Sweet suggested timing activities so that currents “flush the system” could mitigate the impacts. “This would take a significant level of understanding of the local hydrodynamics on any given reef,” he added.
Mohamed said the EPA used to require developers to model the hydrology of their proposal. Then the agency was sidelined.
Two snorkel dives in South Malé lagoon illustrate how delicate the balance is for corals. One reef bursts with colour and movement, a “hope site” spared the worst of the bleaching by a cooling current. A turtle grazes. A shark flits past. Countless varieties of fish dart across patches of purple, pink and orange coral.
Just 15 minutes away by speed boat, it is a different picture. A film of sludgy green-brown algae veils white skeletons. The fish are still beautiful, but less densely packed. Last year the Banyan Tree resort recorded sea surface temperatures of 33.6C, compared to the usual 27-28C. Before the heatwave, this reef had 90% live coral cover. After, it fell to 9%.
Several resorts keep coral nurseries in a bid to sustain their star attraction. Banyan Tree’s marine lab is experimenting with running a small electric current through an underwater iron frame to attract calcium ions and help corals grow back faster. Results of a controlled study are expected later this year.
The MRC’s Adam said resort reefs were often in better shape than those of inhabited islands, as a result of these attentions.
But the lagoons are in for engineering on an unprecedented scale. A statement from the president’s office says the proposed Saudi development on Faafu atoll would involve “several tourist resorts and airports”.
Maldivian planning laws are “some of the strictest in the world,” assures the statement. Any developments will “respect the fragile ecosystem that encompasses the archipelago”.
“When there is no coral, there is no Maldives”
Given the secrecy surrounding deals and suppression of environmental concerns, others are not convinced.
Former president Mohamed Nasheed is in exile, hoping to return home next year to contest a presidential election. That depends on the judiciary lifting his 13-year prison sentence for terrorism charges, which a UN working group found to be “arbitrary” and “politically motivated”. He told Climate Home in London transparency was essential to the country’s resilience in the face of climate change.
“First and most importantly, good governance is the most important adaptation measure,” he said. “If you don’t have governance you end up coming with mad solutions. You end up giving the wrong contract to the wrong person. You end up building the wrong revetment at the wrong place. You end up building bridges to nowhere.”
Yameen’s urbanising drive is undermining the national identity, added Nasheed. “We are an island nation and we have remained an island nation for the last 7,000 years,” he said. “To abandon the natural growth of that settlement, we have always felt would be wrong. If you ask the people of the islands in any free manner… I don’t believe that they would want to abandon their islands and come to a central place.”
A threat to the reefs is a threat to national survival, said veteran diver Sendi. “When there is no coral, there is no Maldives.”