MALÉ, Maldives: The Maldives, an exquisite archipelago in the Indian Ocean, faces an existential threat from rising sea levels.
President Mohamed Muizzu, in contrast to previous relocation plans, has unveiled an ambitious strategy centered around land reclamation and elevating islands. While Muizzu seeks $500 million in foreign funding for coastal protection, he assures that citizens will not leave their homeland.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed foresaw the Maldives becoming the world’s first environmental refugees, urging the nation to save funds for land in neighboring countries. However, President Muizzu, emphasizing self-sufficiency, proposes expanding living areas and economic activities domestically. Sea walls are envisioned to categorize risk areas as “safe islands,” with Muizzu ruling out the need to buy or lease land from other nations.
Despite these assurances, 80% of the Maldives lies less than a meter above sea level, posing a formidable challenge. Sea walls may protect densely populated settlements, crucial for daily life, but the fate of the picturesque beach islands vital for tourism remains uncertain. With tourism contributing nearly one-third to the economy, this delicate balance between development and environmental preservation becomes pivotal.
The Maldives’ vulnerability to climate change dates back decades, with former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom warning the UN in 1985 about the potential “death of a nation” due to rising sea levels. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) echoed these concerns in 2007, predicting the virtual uninhabitability of the Maldives by the end of the century with a rise of 18 to 59 centimeters.
Today, the warning lights are flashing red, with rising salt levels already depleting fresh water supplies across the archipelago. Every inhabited islet relies on expensive desalination plants, underlining the urgent need for adaptation to environmental changes.
President Muizzu’s proposal involves expansive land reclamation projects, a path the Maldives has ventured on before. Over the past four decades, the country has increased its landmass by around 10% through reclamation, using sand pumped onto submerged coral platforms. Muizzu, a British-educated civil engineer, played a crucial role in overseeing the expansion of Hulhumale, an artificial island linked to the capital Male.
However, environmental and rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), caution against hasty reclamation efforts lacking proper mitigation policies. HRW accuses authorities of not implementing their environmental regulations, asserting that reclamation projects often neglect environmental protection laws, heightening flooding risks.
Despite these concerns, President Muizzu remains determined, emphasizing the potential to expand beyond the crowded capital of Male. Reclamation, though a necessary measure, requires careful execution. Ahmed Fizal of Marine Journal Maldives (MJM) expresses apprehension, fearing that lagoons might be viewed as profitable reclamation sites, potentially overlooking environmental consequences.
As the Maldives grapples with the impacts of climate change, balancing economic development with environmental conservation emerges as a critical challenge. The delicate ecosystem, coupled with the economic reliance on tourism, necessitates a cautious and well-considered approach to navigate the uncertain waters of the climate crisis.