Maldives’ plan to reclaim atoll land for tourist resorts could ‘smother the ecosystem’ | Maldives

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A A controversial land reclamation project on an atoll threatened by rising sea levels has been announced in the Maldives, in hopes it could boost tourism over fears it could ‘smother the ecosystem’.

The low-lying island nation, one of the most vulnerable to climate change in the world, has commissioned a major coastal protection and land reclamation program using sand dredged from a lagoon, despite concerns over the impact on this UNESCO biosphere reserve.

A Dutch maritime entrepreneur, Van Oord, has announced that he will create 194 hectares (480 acres) of land, including three new island resorts, in the southern atoll of Addu City – as part of a United States government project. Maldives aimed at boosting the local economy, tackling land scarcity and protecting the coastline. The program would cost $147.1m (£117m) and would be funded by an Indian bank.

According to Van Oord, up to 5 million cubic meters of sand will be dredged from a lagoon in the middle of the six islands, which are home to at least 20,000 people. Other estimates place the amount of sand to be removed at 6.9 million cubic meters.

Map of an atoll, with planned new land areas indicated
A map of the atoll showing where the newly created land on Addu will be. Estimates of the amount of sand needed vary from 5 to 6.7 million cubic meters.

Ali Nizar, mayor of Addu City, told the Guardian it would cause less environmental damage than repeated small projects and give the area an economic future and land for the next generation. “Addu has no land for other economic activities and industrial use at the moment,” he said, admitting, “It’s a tough decision we’ve made.”

He added: “Addu is the second largest populated area in the Maldives. It needs economic change and it needs land. He’s had three reclamation projects in the last 20 years – that’s not a good way to go.

“With this project, we will have enough land for the next 50 to 100 years. Any type of project would have damage to the environment, but what we need to do is take steps to minimize it.

Although the project enjoys public support, an environmental impact assessment has raised concerns. Addu Atoll became a Unesco reserve in 2020, thanks to seagrass beds and mangrove forests that act as carbon sinks and also allow local people to make a living from diving tourism and fishing.

The report says the reclamation could bury 21 hectares of coral and 120ha of seagrass, and will stir up sediment that could “smother nearby ecosystems and affect their ability to recover over the long term”, affecting local fisheries. and marine life like dolphins.

A group of local environmental agencies have demanded that the Maldivian government halt the project, while a local civil lawsuit is also seeking to stop the development.

Sara Naseem, Advocacy Manager at Transparency Maldives, said that guaranteed environmental safeguards need to be put in place and is concerned that local people will not benefit enough from them. “The additional islands that are reclaimed are for tourism development, to give to the wealthy and the elite to set up businesses,” she said.

The Van Oord suction dredger off the Maldives, where she was involved in a previous reclamation project. Photography: Van Oord

“We are very concerned that most of the reclaimed land will not directly benefit the local community or people, and their housing issues will not be resolved,” Naseem said.

Van Oord, who won a dredging innovation award for a previous land reclamation project in the Maldives, pledged to work with local interest groups, use sustainable techniques, minimize the spread silt in the lagoon and creating new coral – as well as providing seven miles (11km) of new shoreline protection.

Dredging manager Niels de Bruijn said such projects would become increasingly common in the age of climate adaptation, and could also be expected in places like Bali and the Bahamas. “It will really help the local people to get space to build houses and other things, and to have tourism activities to improve their lives a bit,” he said.

“Even if we do all of Paris [climate] objectives, the sea level will rise further. Climate adaptation is therefore about seeing what we can do to help and protect people from climate change.

Jayeeta Gupta, Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam, said: “Many small island states are investing in large sand mining projects to reclaim land to improve tourism revenues and possibly reduce the risk of sea-level rise.

“Such strategies are both positive and negative; while they increase the development potential and adaptive capacity of the islands, they also create new problems, such as sand mining – which affects the ocean – and increased tourism, which affects the quality of the corals that they want to protect and preserve.

“Many also import labor under conditions that may not meet basic labor protection standards. On the other hand, these countries are trying to cope with the huge impacts of climate change by maximizing short-term revenues because their long-term future is not so secure.”

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