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Digging at the root of environmental protection in Maldives

A look into the empty promises of past and present administrations...and the 'seemingly impossible' task of protecting Maldives' pristine environment

Ahmed Aiham
22 October 2020, MVT 12:24
A photograph of the Sinamale' Bridge - the largest infrastructural project undertaken by Maldives till date, negatively impacting the surf break of Capital city Male' and completely destroying the surf break on airport island Hulhule. The project is trumped only by the 'Greater Male' Connectivity Project' which will see the development of three additional bridges linking the six islands that make up the 'Greater Male' Region' together. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU
Ahmed Aiham
22 October 2020, MVT 12:24

Tackling the Kraken that lurks beneath paradise on earth

Maldives - an idyllic tropical paradise, full of luxury island resorts that call home to pristine white sandy beaches and breathtaking sceneries, hides an ugly grain of truth deep beneath the vantage of lush green coconut fronds.

Given the island nations’ blessed environment, it seemed only natural for past leaders to shape Maldives’ economy to rely on tourism since the industry was first established in 1972. Today, a stay in the premier tourist destination is marketed promising an unforgettable experience - a day in ‘The Sunny Side of Life’.

Developers engaged in mega reclamation of one of the largest lagoons in the Kaafu Atoll, the 'Emboodhoo Lagoon' for the development of Crossroads Maldives. PHOTO: MIHAARU

However, in shaping this image of magnificence, decision-makers appear to have glossed over one important detail: the responsibility that follows belonging to such beauty.

Specifically, the necessity of managing the delicate balance of this natural ecosystem so that it remains pristine and protected for generations (and tourists) to come.

Coral reefs, lagoons, beaches, mangroves and seagrass beds form the Maldivian coastal ecosystem. This highly rich and diverse reef system that makes up the Maldives is also the 7th largest in the world. Further, the marine environment, as it is for any coastal nation, plays a key role in the provision of food security and the livelihood of all Maldivians.

Established as the country's primary revenue powerhouse, the Maldivian hospitality industry, in many ways, accompanies state-backed initiatives such as land reclamation and tree uprooting. These endeavours, in turn, cause vast and undeniable destruction to the natural protection mechanisms that islands possess and thus, to the livelihood of the Maldivian people.

Case in point: the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranked Maldives in the lowly 127th position, from 180 countries that were assessed based on environmental health and vitality of ecosystems. The report further identified the most immediate issue threatening the country to be ‘Biodiversity and Habitat’ preservation, in which the island nation is ranked last at 180.

This clearly marks a significant move away from what has become to any observer, 'hollow pledges' made by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih during elections and when he first came to power, affirming the highest priority of his administration would be "to preserve the environment and safeguard it for future generations".

Aerial view of the airport in HDh.Kulhudhuffushi. The development of which costed the island it's large mangrove system and impacted the livelihood of women who utilized the mangrove to make coir rope. PHOTO: IRUSHAD

State-backed destruction? How so?

In fact, the Strategic Action Plan (SAP) released by President Solih’s administration also deemed anthropological factors as the main source of environmental degradation in Maldives.

"Concomitant with development and population growth, the pressures exerted on the natural environment has increased significantly over the past four decades, resulting in over-extraction and damage to critical ecosystems".

"Chief among these pressures include reclamation associated with infrastructure projects, habitat alteration to accommodate social and economic growth, over-extraction of natural resources and species including baitfish and heightened pollution from over-excessive use of chemicals, inadequate waste management, and untreated sewage disposal", addressed the SAP.

Moreover, in reference to statistics from the Ministry of Environment, while only a single percent of Maldives’ geographical territory is considered land, a whopping 80 percent of all islands face erosion, exacerbating the importance of adopting environmentally sound policies.

Recently, former President and current Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed claimed that state action would be rendered futile, should land erosion persist at its ongoing speed.

"We cannot stop living. Cannot stop development. Cannot stop the provision of housing. Cannot stop vessels from departing...", said the former president.

According to the study ‘Rapid human-driven undermining of atoll island capacity to adjust to ocean climate-related pressures’, which sampled data from 608 Maldivian islands, “respectively 20.1 percent and 46.2 percent of inhabited and exploited islands have already reached, and may reach in the near future, an anthropogenic tipping point.

The research also highlighted that “island armouring will be the only solution to maintain islands in the face of sea-level rise and extremes”.

However, even as all the evidence in the world highlights how crucial these decisions are to future generations, governments past and present have continually prioritized infrastructural and environmentally damaging development as evidenced by numerous mega-development projects.

Hold up… don’t we have an Environmental Protection Agency to ensure a resilient environment?

Mandated as ‘the’ body to enforce environmental protection, it may seem natural to paint the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the ultimate scapegoat behind environmental destruction.

Nevertheless, with overlapping mandates between EPA and the Environment Ministry, in addition to the loopholes within regulatory frameworks, the EPA as it presently sits, is more akin to a puppet that was made to impersonate a puppeteer.

As the issue of environmental destruction is not inherently exclusive to natural forms and phenomena of climate change, it is, therefore, paramount that the EPA is granted the necessary enforcement ability to take action against such threats at a time when humanity descends into a dire point in existence.

As environmental situations grow more and more precarious; it has become increasingly important for the EPA to play an active role in regulating and protecting our environment.

While EPA has had its share of failures, many are precisely because it lacks the legal authority needed to carry out its mandate.

Consider the reclamation of Maafaru island in Noonu Atoll to lengthen the existing airport runway, a project that after having conducted the necessary Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), the environment watchdog had rejected. To its credit, EPA firmly stood ground on the matter, only to be overridden by the Environment Ministry in a bid to assuage the Planning Ministry.

A before and after picture following the mass deforestation that was sanctioned by the government to make way for the development of an airport in Maafaru, Noonu Atoll. PHOTO: MIHAARU FILES

Irrespective of presidential pledges, EPA’s mandate to act as the vanguard of our irreplaceable environment, is clearly rendered futile by the tight leash held by the ministry.

In an interview with The Edition, EPA Deputy Director-General Ibrahim Mohamed noted that, while EPA is able to reject an EIA, there were great difficulties in rejecting a project in itself. The EPA must prove, in a court of law, the negative consequences of a project - all the while local consultancy groups advocate against the claims.

Moreover, he stated that EIA reports are often conducted after a government secures funding from donors, further botching efforts to halt such projects.

Despite EPA effectively lacking any capacity to downright reject negatively impactful projects, the public continues to expect the institution to do so.

Another area of concern, iterated by sources in EPA and members of the public, is the conflict of interest during project proposals, assessments and commencement.

As a considerable amount of projects are financed by the Ministry of Environment and through environmental funds, consultancy work for the EIAs are often undertaken by ministry staff on an ad-hoc basis.

This would mean in essence, that the government is financing itself to produce an EIA for a project that is virtually greenlit without too many complications if any at all.

To most people, this would indicate a clear-cut issue of conflicting interests.

Naeem further revealed that a regulation was drafted by EPA, detailing the would-be structure of the agency as an independent body. Not only was the bill submitted to the ministry for approval, it was then filed at the President’s Office, yet executive action eludes the cause.

Dear reader, now I am not a civil service expert but I pose to you this question: Would it not be counterproductive for EPA’s ‘here’s how to make us independent’ regulation to be amended and approved by the very ministry it seeks to break away from?

Understanding the impact

Summoned to the Parliament's Environment and Climate Change Committee regarding the ‘greenification’ of developing resorts, Director-General Naeem expressed disapproval of land reclamation projects, stating that as a result, the environment faces unsustainable levels of destruction. He suggested that resorts should be built on uninhabited islands instead.

However, as it currently stands, it is permissible to remove and transfer vegetation from sites where major projects are planned or ongoing.

In January, EPA approved the uprooting of 585 privately owned coconut palms on the already semi-barren Bandidhoo Island, Dhaalu Atoll, in order to establish 11 roads as per a previously approved Land Use Plan (LUP), with the trees to be transported to developing resort island Sun Aqua Iru Veli.

Addressing EPA's complications, Naeem revealed that various challenges in the field of monitoring exist, including the lack of an adequate budget and the need for the agency's own means of transportation.

The island of Funadhoo, Gaafu Alifu Atoll, seen razed by contractors in February, 2019.

"We are in a very difficult situation. It is a huge challenge for us to monitor every island the way citizens demand", said Naeem, adding that financial assistance must be arranged in order to strengthen EPA's efforts.

Equating the problem as having been caused by overlapping mandates, which the ministry uses to allegedly siphon EPA funding into their own, Naeem noted that EPA, other than dolling out its recurrent expenditures such as staff salaries, is unable to monitor on an “ad-hoc” basis due to lack of funds.

He suggested that a percentage of the ‘green fund’ be diverted into EPA to rectify the agency’s financial shortfalls.

Lawmakers’ one-stop solution for environmental conservation: declaring a climate emergency

On February 12, the parliament passed a resolution to declare a climate emergency - a first-of-its-kind move for Maldivian history - but as it currently stands, just one of the country's many exuberant gestures, and statements delivered with a flourish, asserting its position as a global climate advocate.

As the current administration maintains its pledge to stand at the forefront of tackling climate change and transition towards decentralized development, Maldives continues to further the fallacy of environmental protection.

Whilst busy garnering support for the 2018 presidential elections, the Solih-administration proposed prioritizing the protection of the environment, relying on eco-tourism, and to adopt a ‘Blue Economy’.

However, the genuineness of these statements are suspect as EPA is yet to become an independent institution - nearly two years since the incumbent took his oath.

People powah!

A movement started by local environment advocates under the hashtag #MVTreeGrab has been widely credited as having brought the issue of uprooting palm trees and "tropical deforestation" to a phase of action.

However, efforts by the public and civil societies, in general, are overshadowed by the lack of political will over the matter.

Earlier in May, citizen-led environmental campaign ‘Save Maldives’ published an open letter to Maldives’ parliament calling on representatives to immediately “stop all environmentally destructive projects like Gulhifalhu and hold the government accountable”.

Highlighting the lived reality following the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, the collective raised concerns on the state’s continuation of irreversible, environmentally destructive and debt-financed projects, criticising the Parliament’s passive approach.

“We have not seen any action in connection with this [climate emergency] declaration”, said Save Maldives.

Speaking to The Edition, Save Maldives reiterated its collective stance, stressing, “Neither the policymakers nor the lawmakers are walking the talk on the climate crisis”.

Stating that the pandemic "is an unprecedented crisis”, an open letter by the collective relates that effects are felt in “the country’s fragile healthcare system, weak social protection system and precarious economic system”.

Despite possessing knowledge of projects that may cause irreversible damage to a fragile environment while facing unprecedented negative impacts of global change, as well as the ability to assess economic impacts brought on by the pandemic, “Majlis is doing nothing to stop the major debt-funded projects continuing across the country at great speed”, said Save Maldives.

The ultimate PR stunt

"The Maldives comprises oceanic atolls, and for that reason, its survival depends on the resilience of the seas, reefs and coastlines. It is our collective responsibility to protect our islands and guarantee their survival for posterity", asserted President Solih during his presidential address on February 7, 2019.

A young Maldivian girl participates in Maldives' own Climate Strike movement, inspired by Greta Thunberg, calling out for further protection of the environment, to secure her generation's right to a prosperous future by establishing a more sustainable, planet-friendly way forward. PHOTO: MIHAARU

"Our development plans and policies must centre around preserving our naturally beautiful nation. Our natural resources must be preserved to ensure our habitat is safe and resilient. We shall make our mark on the international arena again as a leading champion of the environment".

As such, the administration has, under its pledge to designate at least one island, one reef and one mangrove, in each atoll as a protected area, assigned protected status to over 20 locations famed for their rich biodiversity.

One might think wonderful things when they hear of such deeds but hidden beneath the surface lies an unavoidable truth - the unregulated and superficial nature of these initiatives - not a single policy level change was implemented to ensure that these sites remain protected.

In addition, various development projects sanctioned by President Solih's government contradict the spirit of their pledges to decentralize and ensure the protection of the environment, including the controversial proposal for the development of multiple bridges to link capital city Male' with suburb Vilimale', Gulhifalhu and the infamous ‘rubbish island’ Thilafushi, as part of the 'Greater Male Connectivity Project', which also comes with a whopping price tag of MVR 1.8 billion.

An aerial photograph of the ongoing Gulhifalhu reclamation in the Greater Male' Region. The mega development project aims to connect Capital city Male' with connective bridges to the industrial isalnd, as well as the neighbouring Vilimale' and waste management island Thilafushi. Mega infrastructural projects by the previous administration was often scrutinized by the current ruling party. However, upon coming to power in 2018, the incumbent administration has continually doubled down on mass 'ecocide', in violation of the electoral pledges by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. PHOTO: SAVE MALDIVES

Despite acknowledging that the reclamation of Gulhifalhu and other similar projects would harm the environment, former Minister of Environment and the incumbent Minister of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure Mohamed Aslam asserted that the project was important to the Maldivian economy.

This begs the question, “Why (how) does the government justify ‘concrete development’ that causes the irreversible destruction of an irreplaceable resource, on the basis of opportunity cost?”.

In spite of numerous environmentalists drawing attention to the many issues plaguing the country, Maldives remains unabated by the looming threat of climate change.

Administrations have historically scrambled, to frantically establish a facade of environmental prioritization that matches the importance (given the comparative contributions to global warming from developing countries vs SIDs) but often hypocritical stance Maldives has held on international platforms.

A photograph from 1998 with the then-president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom overlooking a high eroded island in Haa Alif Atoll. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU

Nevertheless, truth be told, neither island presidents, concrete presidents nor transitional presidents have yet solved the fundamental problem of offering lasting protection of their people.

Systematically shunned, graves dug and coastlines unarmed

Based on all this information, it seems all too logical to conclude that EPA, for the decade it has existed, was deliberately underfunded, kept ineffective and maybe purposefully designed to act as a buffer against public backlash.

It is a pretty ‘smart’ corporate move if you ask this writer. Why wouldn’t those in power choose to establish a line of defence between angry hoards of environmentalists calling for accountability and transparency?

While EPA is not entirely blameless in enabling environmentally destructive practices to fester out of control, there is little to no grounds in holding EPA to the same pedestal as legislators and executive bodies.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih alongside former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Male' city Mayor Shifa Mohamed during the one-off the nationwide clean-up initiative named “Saafu Raajje, Aharenge ves zimma”. PHOTO: AHMED NISHAATH/MIHAARU

Only if the government brought much-needed regulatory reforms and granted necessary enforcement abilities alongside its independence, can the EPA be held fully accountable for its failings.

Only then can the incumbent administration be called to action, to live up to its promises toward sustainable development and environmental protection.

Wouldn’t you agree?