Human Rights Watch (HRW), on Thursday, urged the government to protect the remaining portion of mangrove areas in Kulhudhuffushi, Haa Dhaalu Atoll.
A considerable portion of Kulhudhuffushi's mangroves was destroyed in 2017 to build a domestic airport on the island. A total of 13 hectares of mangrove wetland as well as six hectares of the island's lagoon were reclaimed as part of the development project.
HRW claimed that Maldivian authorities were considering plans to reclaim the remaining area for development despite the incumbent administration's pledges to ensure environmental protection.
“The Maldives government will be putting more islanders at risk of their lives and livelihoods from flooding if they destroy more mangroves”, said Associate Director for Asia Patricia Gossman.
“The Maldives are already at serious risk from the effects of climate change, and the authorities should be taking urgent steps to protect island communities facing further harm”.
Highlighting that mangrove forests provide natural protection against flooding and coastal erosion, HRW stated that Kulhudhuffushi City had grown more vulnerable after swaths of the mangrove were cleared for airport development, citing serious flooding during heavy rains in December 2019.
According to HRW, Kulhudhuffushi residents confirmed that the frequency and severity of flooding on the island had increased compared to previous years, with areas adjacent to destroyed mangrove buffers being the worst hit by floods.
In addition to raising such concerns, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) conducted in 2017 also warned of irreversible damage that would result from airport construction. The sentiments were echoed by activists and Kulhudhuffushi women, whose businesses depended on natural resources from the mangroves and the adjacent palm forest.
Despite these concerns, former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom expedited the airport project and inaugurated the facility on September 22, 2018, just ahead of the Presidential elections. Regular operations commenced during the incumbent administration on August 9, 2019.
Experts from the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), an organization with which the government began collaborative efforts in March 2019, have also recommended the government to undertake conservation measures, including restoring the hydrology of the mangroves to protect the island from flooding.
HRW emphasized Maldives' vulnerability to climate change, and asserted that ecosystems such as mangroves and coral reefs were crucial forms of protection against extreme weather events.
Associate Director Gossman further added that “by adopting measures aimed at protecting Kulhudhuffushi’s remaining mangroves, Maldives authorities would signal a real commitment to protecting the island’s communities.”