Maldives plan to reclaim atoll land for tourist resorts could stifle ecosystem | Maldives

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A In the Maldives, a controversial land reclamation project on an atoll threatened by rising sea levels has been announced in hopes it could boost tourism amid fears it could “choke on the ecosystem”.

The low-lying island nation, one of the world’s hardest hit by climate change, has commissioned a major coastal protection and land reclamation program that involves dredging sand from a lagoon, despite concerns about the impact on this Unesco biosphere reserve.

Van Oord, a Dutch shipping entrepreneur, has announced plans to create 194 hectares (480 acres) of land, including three new island resorts, in Addu City’s southern atoll – part of a Maldives government project to boost the local economy and tackle land water shortages and protection of the coast. The scheme will reportedly cost $147.1m (£117m) and will be funded through 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 put the amount of sand to be removed at 6.9 million cubic meters.

Map of an atoll showing proposed new land areas
A map of the atoll showing where the newly created land will be on Addu. Estimates of the amount of sand required vary between 5 and 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 region 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 difficult decision that we made.”

He added: “Addu is the second largest populated area in the Maldives. It takes economic change and it takes land. In the last 20 years there have been three reclamation projects – this is not a good way.

“With this project we have enough land for the next 50-100 years. Any kind of project would harm the environment, but what we have to do is take measures to minimize it.”

Although the project has public support, an environmental impact assessment has raised concerns. Addu Atoll was declared a Unesco Reserve in 2020 thanks to seagrass meadows and mangrove forests that act as carbon sinks and also provide local people with livelihoods through diving tourism and fishing.

According to the report, the reclamation could bury 21 hectares of coral and 120 hectares of seagrass beds and raise sediments that could “choke nearby ecosystems and impair their ability for long-term recovery,” affecting local fisheries and marine life like dolphins.

A group of local environmental authorities has urged the Maldives government to stop the project, while a local civil court case is also trying to stop the development.

Sara Naseem, advocacy manager at Transparency Maldives, said there must be guaranteed environmental protections in place and she was worried local people weren’t getting enough benefit. “The additional islands that will be reclaimed are for tourism development and are meant to be given to the rich and elite so they can build businesses,” she said.

Van Oord’s suction dredger off the Maldives, where it was involved in a previous land reclamation project. Photo: Van Oord

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

Van Oord, which won a dredging innovation award for a previous land reclamation project in the Maldives, has pledged to work with local stakeholders, use sustainable techniques, minimize silt spread in the lagoon and create new coral – as well as seven miles ( 11 km) new bank protection.

Niels de Bruijn, director of dredging, said such projects are becoming more common in times of climate adaptation and are also to be expected in places like Bali and the Bahamas. “This will really help local people get space to build houses and other things and have tourist activities to make their life a little bit better,” he said.

“Even if we do all of Paris [climate] Goals, but the sea level will still rise. So climate adaptation shows what we can do to help people and protect them from climate change.”

Jayeeta Gupta, Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam, said: “Many small island nations are investing in large-scale sand mining projects to reclaim land to increase tourism revenues and potentially reduce the risk of marine damage. level rise.

“Such strategies are both positive and negative; While they enhance the islands’ development potential and adaptability, they also create new problems, such as sand mining – which is affecting the oceans – and increased tourism, which is affecting the quality of the corals they seek to protect and conserve.

“Many are also importing workers under conditions that may not meet basic health and safety 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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