This guest blog post/op-ed was written by the woman leaders of Uthema and Voice of Women, Maldives – November 14, 2017
Maldives is a nation of nearly 1200 natural coral islands in the Indian Ocean, hosting approximately 150 wetlands of varying sizes with significant biodiversity and environmental importance. Kulhudhuhfushi island lies in the northern region of the Maldives in Haa Dhaal Atoll. It is the most populous island in the north of the country, with a resident population of 8440, which includes 4475 women and 3965 men (Census, 2014).
The island of Kulhudhuhfushi is home to the seventh largest mangrove wetland in the Maldives. It is of special interest because it is the largest white clay wetland in the country. The wetland is an integral part of the island and its relevance is woven into the fabric of the community, with links to the economy, culture, traditions and way of life of the community.
The government of Maldives has made the irresponsible decision to reclaim a large part of the Kulhudhuhfushi mangrove wetland which involves the destruction of its mature mangrove forest, to make way for the development of an airport. Notably, there is an existing international airport on the nearby island of Hanimaadhoo, which is only a 20 to 30 minutes speed boat ride away from Kulhudhuhfushi.
Concerned citizens, environmental and human rights advocates with civil society partners have been raising concerns since the government made its rushed decision to reclaim the mangrove wetland a few weeks ago. A key justification is that this is a 2013 campaign pledge of the incumbent President. The Maldives Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report had warned of the damaging consequences of such a development. Nevertheless, the Minister for Environment and Energy, Mr Thoriq Ibrahim over-rode the due processes to expedite the reclamation project, by signing the decision statement of the EPA himself. Additionally, the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MEE) undermined due process under existing laws and regulations by approving and starting the project 5 days before the public consultation and comment submission deadline. This denied the Maldivian public their right to have a say on the irreversible destruction of the Kulhudhuhfushi wetland. The multiple irregularities and disregard to due processes by the authorities have led advocates to conclude that this alleged “development project” is flawed and unsound in every way – environmentally, socially, culturally, economically and in its governance.
Environmental Damage, Climate Change and Disaster Risk
The mangrove wetland of Kulhudhuhfushi is an integral part of the island ecosystem and acts as a natural defense system of the whole island. The wetland acted as a natural drainage system when the 2004 Asian Tsunami hit the island. Notably, the island is geographically located in an area that is designated as ‘high risk’ to environmental disasters. A 2013 detailed island risk and vulnerability assessment produced by the Maldives Ministry of Environment and Energy estimated that in the event of a severe tsunami, Kulhudhuhfushi may suffer loss and damage to the value of MVR 100m to 126m (USD 6.5m – 8.2m). In the event of a swell wave, the island is estimated to suffer a ‘tangible loss’ of MVR 29m (USD 1.8m). The significance of the mangrove wetland ecosystem to the stability of the community in both environmental disaster mitigation and financial terms cannot be over-stated.
Mangrove wetlands are well known for their carbon absorption capacity and are natural carbon sinks. The government’s decision to destroy a carbon sink to replace it with an airport, well known for increasing carbon emissions, is contrary to every climate change adaptation and mitigation principle or policy in the global climate change discourse.
The reclamation of the Kulhudhuhfushi wetland will cause widespread damage to the surrounding area, using a much celebrated trailing suction hopper dredger named “Mahaa Jarraaf”, purchased from China by the government company Maldives Transport and Contracting Company Plc (MTCC). The impacted areas will include the pristine reef ecosystems of the island and its surrounding areas, which remain relatively untouched because large-scale tourism has not reached these areas of the Maldives yet. The damage caused due to dredging and consequent sedimentation is expected to negatively impact the soft coral reefs in the area. Professional divers and environmental experts raise serious concerns about the irreparable damage the dredging activities would do to the under-water reef ecosystems and wildlife.
The mangrove wetland of Kulhudhuhfushi is a source of livelihood, specifically for women on the island. The wetland is used to bury coconut husks for soaking, a process that takes about 6-7 months. The coir from the husk is used to make rope, a specialised skill that has been practiced in the community for generations. The coir rope which is used for house-building and boat-building traditionally, continues to have a market in current day Maldives, particularly in the tourism sector. The rope is also a completely natural product made sustainably using naturally available materials on the island.
Available information from a community based organisation shows that a total of 404 families depend on the mangrove wetland for livelihoods in coir rope making. This informal industry is driven primarily by women and estimates show that this skilled manual rope-production work accounts for an annual revenue of MVR 8.7m (USD 0.6m), which is a significant income to the island’s economy. However, the families were given a few days to vacate their working areas on the wetland, to make way for the reclamation project. Notably, this informal economic activity has no social protections, unlike the formal employment sectors. The vulnerability of those making a living from the wetland is highlighted by the fact that there has been no information about any plans to provide compensation for the women and families who have lost their livelihoods. Additionally, it is known that 18 households would be relocated to facilitate the project. However, news reports suggest that the householders remain “in the dark” about their relocation plans, as the project got under way on 28 October 2017.
The reclamation project was formally inaugurated by the President of Maldives on 12 November 2017. Speaking at the inaugural ceremony, he said that Maldivian youth would not have to continue to soak coconut husks in the wetland because his vision of development is to expand the tourism industry in the atoll, increasing the bed capacity by an additional 1500 beds. This would involve the reclamation of two large lagoons in the atoll to make artificial land to build resorts. However, it is unlikely that the coir-rope makers of Kulhudhuhfushi would find their employment in the tourism sector. History shows that three decades of tourism in the country has only provided space for women’s representation in that sector at a mere 7%. Furthermore, a significant percentage of that single digit would be women employed as informal workers in insecure unskilled jobs and labour, such as road sweeping.
Biodiversity and Food Security
Kulhudhuhfushi mangrove wetland is a mature ecosystem that has survived and evolved over centuries and is home to a variety of vegetation and wildlife. The mangrove habitat hosts 8 ‘true mangrove species’ that are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. The wetland is also a host for seasonally migrating birds that cross the Indian Ocean. As a complex ecosystem of multiple types of flora and fauna, the wetland is a significant natural treasure and national asset in environmental terms.
Maldives is almost entirely dependent on foreign imports for food, and remain highly vulnerable to external economic and other shocks. In times of food insecurity, many of the plants and trees that are abundant in this mangrove forest are known to have been sources of sustenance to the island community, preventing famine. In addition, the wetland lake itself is a source of fish stock during monsoonal rough weather when fishing in the open sea becomes difficult and dangerous. Although these resources are not used as a regular food supply today, their continued existence ensures a sustainable source of food in times of hardship and food insecurity.
The COP Must Not Be A COP-Out
The Minister for Environment and Energy Mr Thoriq Ibrahim is currently representing the Maldives at the UNFCCC’s 23rd COP in Bonn, Germany. The assumption is that he is there to discuss the Maldives’ commitment to address the issue of global climate change with other member states. Maldives is a climate vulnerable, low-lying small island state, concerned about rising sea-levels which would contribute to beach erosion and land loss. A situation which will increase the damaging impact of severe weather events on its communities which have inadequate resources to mitigate or adapt. Maldives is concerned because of rising global temperatures which are bleaching and destroying the corals that make up the foundations of its islands. Without active destruction of its fragile natural ecosystems, there are enough worries for Maldives about mitigating and adapting to climate change.
The question is, do member states of the UN COP know what the government of Maldives is doing to the country’s fragile environment back home? As the incumbent Chair of AOSIS, what quality of leadership is Maldives providing for other small island states to follow, to commit to the Paris Agreement or whatever other agreements they would commit to this year at COP23?
Is the donor community aware of the unsustainable and harmful environmental practices the government of Maldives has chosen to adopt, as global efforts are made to address the realities of climate change to communities like Kulhudhuhfushi at the forefront of climate related disasters?
As the high-level discussions at COP23 get under-way, the narrative of the global sustainable development goals must not be allowed to ring hollow. The COP must not be turned into a platform that enables malfeasance by duty-bearers, to enrich themselves while they leave behind vulnerable communities to perpetually seek refuge from disasters due to climate injustice at home and abroad.