Seeking Higher Ground: Climate Resilience in the Maldives

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Seeking Higher Ground: Climate Resilience in the Maldives

Maldivians cannot wait much longer for durable solutions to the threats posed by climate change.

Seeking Higher Ground: Climate Resilience in the Maldives

A surfer walks along a sea wall in Malé in front of the Chinese-funded Sinamalé bridge, constructed in 2018, connecting Malé to Hulhulé and Hulhumalé. A wildly popular sport and one of the few activities possible on crowded Malé, many complain the construction has worsened the surf conditions.

Credit: Nicholas Muller

As you descend into the Maldives, the aerial view is spectacular: In two rows, 1,200 turquoise rings dot the seascape in the middle of the Indian Ocean along the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge. The constellation of coral islands connects the lowest-lying country in the world like a fragile necklace. 

Just after landing, the country’s rapid transformation is apparent in the many newly-built high rises and construction sites. In the background, Malé is just a stone’s throw away. Sitting right in the center of the more than two dozen coral atolls, the jam-packed capital sits a mere meter above sea level. Without an inch wasted, its urban mayhem makes it one of the most densely populated places on the planet, where 200,000 people jostle daily for space and pay a premium for it. The remainder of the country’s population is scattered throughout the rest of its 200 inhabited islands and lives in a vastly different reality.

Unsurprisingly, the maritime nation has staked its economic livelihood on its coastal riches, for generations on fishing and today overwhelmingly on tourism. With 80 percent of its expansive territory lying less than a meter above sea level, the population of 500,000 is well aware of the wrath of the sea. This means the country’s “cash cows,” highly fragile ecosystems, are at the mercy of future climate volatility.

A fisherman sits in his boat in the Malé harbor after weeks at sea. Declining catches, expensive fuel, and illegal fishing by foreign vessels make life increasingly difficult for fishermen. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

In 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami became a crisis for the country: Within an hour of a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean and without warning, much of the Maldives was submerged, the resulting tsunami inundating the capital, and causing widespread infrastructural damage throughout the country. The financial toll ran beyond half a billion dollars with almost half of the country’s GDP erased. Entire islands were rendered uninhabitable and abandoned; droves of people relocated to Malé in search of a better, more stable life. 

External pressure after the tsunami led to constitutional reform and eventually a new constitution in 2007. In 2008, the country had its first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Nasheed, who advocated for more urgent climate action, particularly on behalf of small, vulnerable states. With a renewed sense of urgency in addressing the climate threat, climate issues became more prominent in political discourse and slowly started to resonate with more Maldivians.   

Still, in a deeply religious country, explaining climate impacts to the local population has been a hard sell. At the beginning of his presidency, Nasheed told the New York Times, “For your average fisherman, who feels very insignificant in front of God, they are finding it difficult to understand the connection between climate change and human activity.”

A fishmonger prepares a newly delivered yellowfin tuna. Before the tourism boom, tuna fishing was the lifeblood of the economy. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

After Nasheed’s famous underwater cabinet meeting ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15), he told reporters, while still wearing full scuba gear, “We are trying to send our message, let the world know what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked. This is a challenging situation and we would like to see that people actually do something about it.”  

After COP15, sizing up the gravity of the situation, he said, “We worked really hard for a deal in Copenhagen. But in hindsight, coming back to the Maldives, you realize how impossible the whole thing is. You’re having to spend less on health care, less on education, and then use that money on concrete and sea walls.” 

A woman in Hulhumalé goes for a morning swim with other women in a program meant to teach more people how to swim. Despite living next to the sea, many Maldivians are never taught the skill. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

Enormous Changes 

Over the last three decades, Maldivians have flocked to Malé from the outer atolls seeking better services, employment opportunities, and access to schools. Predictably, space soon ran out. Malé’s booming urban population constantly tested the island’s capacities to provide water, electricity, and other basic services to its citizens, motivating the government to try and alleviate the situation.

Back in 1997, Hulhulé Island, just across from Malé, was a mere airstrip tasked with quickly shuttling arriving tourists onto private boats or small seaplanes that took them to faraway resorts. A quarter of a century later, the landscape could not be more different: Two separate lagoons have been transformed into a new, connected island attaching artificial Hulhumalé to Hulhulé by road.

Started by then-President Maumoon Gayoom to primarily ease congestion for Malé residents and spur economic development, the country went “all in” on population relocation to Hulhumalé. Planned in two phases, the intention of the “City of Hope” (in Divehi) was to be the antithesis of Malé: spacious, higher, orderly, and more livable. Millions of tons of sand were dredged from the sea to create the new artificial island purposely built higher, at two meters above sea level, to protect the new island from future sea inundation. With the completion of the first phase, tens of thousands relocated from outer islands and from Malé to Hulhuhmalé.

Phase 1 of construction on Hulhhumalé was finished in the 2000s. Now tens of thousands live on the island. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

In 2018, Malé, Hulhulé, and Hulhumalé were connected with a 2-kilometer bridge which cost $200 million and was financed by Chinese loans. Substantial sums were borrowed for an airport expansion, too. The country is still sorting out the “debt mess” accrued under then President Yameen, whose spending spree is estimated to equal about a third of the Maldives entire GDP. Corruption had become “normalized,” Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives told the Financial Times in 2019. “Allegations of corruption were widespread in President Yameen’s time, and whenever people questioned it, the response was that you don’t need to know.” 

Much is still unknown about the Maldives’ debt situation concerning China. “The [Chinese debt] bill was $3.1 billion,” Nasheed, now speaker of parliament, told the BBC in 2020. The Chinese ambassador to Male, Zhang Lizhong, replied, “China never imposes additional requirements to the Maldivian side or any other developing country, which they do not want to accept or against their will.”

In 2018, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge (Sinamalé) was opened, linking Malé, Hulhuhmalé, and Hulhulé for the first time. The 2-kilometer bridge was funded by a $200 million loan from the Chinese government and has increased development on Hulhumalé. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

Despite the rapid expansion of Hulhumalé, it is not yet a viable economic alternative to Malé for most Maldivians. But that is expected to change as Phase 2 of construction continues, targeting 100,000 more people to move there. 

In the next few years, Hulhumalé could house up to a quarter of a million people, three times more than currently live in Malé, in different types of housing. Social housing has been set aside for those coming from the outer atolls and the capital, along with more expensive housing options. It is widely expected that more than half of the population could live there within a decade. 

Large spatial inequalities complicate the government’s work, as it is increasingly expensive to provide logistical support and services across the country. Over 90 percent of poor Maldivians live in the outer atolls. 

A cluster of buildings on Hulhumalé was financed by Chinese loans under former President Abdulla Yameen. $646 million for the housing project went to the Housing Development Corporation, the Maldivian company responsible for Hulhumalé. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

“Those who stay on the outer (inhabited) islands face crowded conditions, so reclamation is an extremely popular policy. But it is not without controversy though as much of the construction is done haphazardly and destroys natural coral and beaches,” said Paul Roberts, an advisor to Nasheed. 

According to the Asian Development Bank, “The government has finalized a National Spatial Plan (NSP) which focuses on a 20-year roadmap for infrastructure, spatial development, and decentralization. Therefore, the NSP’s focus is on development across all the islands and to reduce the overcrowding and congestion in the capital where approximately 300,000 live in an area of 8.3 square kilometers.”

Sometimes five people sleep in a single bedroom, 10 in one flat. There are still a lot of people who are choosing to relocate to Malé, ” Roberts said. 

The country has moved from a coercive approach to relocation under the former administration to giving people an option whether they want to relocate to Hulhumalé or not. “The whole election (2018) slogan was centered around that (issue). Relocation was completely scrapped and people could remain on their local islands,” Roberts said. 

The city of Malé is one of the most crowded places on Earth. Residents live with high prices and in cramped conditions, often with several family members in close quarters. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

A Heavy Burden

Under Nasheed’s administration, the Maldivian government made climate change adaptation a top priority, and today the country spends 30-50 percent of its GDP annually on adaptation and mitigation measures around the country. “Adaptation is expensive, we are already spending more than 30 percent of our expenditures on adaptation: desalination, water systems, irrigation systems, harvesting issues, on flood defenses, coastal erosion, sand migration, and many other natural disasters,” Nasheed said before COP26 in Glasgow. 

Last year, the Maldives released updated targets in its NDC (National Determined Contribution) report, and now aims to reduce 26 percent of its emissions and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 (pending increased international financial support). 

Most islands in the Maldives stand at just one meter above sea level and are suffering from coastal erosion. They almost completely depend on rainwater or desalination systems. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

The latest IPCC report, released last August, paints an even more dire picture for the country. The U.N.’s climate panel said “limiting global warming close to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius ‘will be beyond reach’ in the next two decades without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

For small states like the Maldives, the report says that global warming “is dangerously close to spiraling out of control.” Small island developing states (SIDS), including the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands, were labeled as having a “disproportionately higher risk of adverse consequences of global warming.”

Nasheed has been the chief climate voice for Maldivians and other small states for years. Referring to the IPCC AR6 report, he said, “This report is devastating news for the most climate-vulnerable countries like the Maldives. It confirms we are on the edge of extinction. Climate emergency is intensifying, we are on the front lines. Our nations are already battered by extreme climate.” A new IPCC report is expected this month. 

Workers from a northern atoll unload bananas in Malé. With extremely limited agriculture and cultivable land, the overcrowded capital presents a major risk for future food security, increasing reliance on imports. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

In outer atolls, this is already a reality. In the more densely-populated islands in the north of the Maldives, residents have volunteered to evacuate in the coming years as tidal surges become the norm. Half of the country’s inhabited islands have already reported coastal erosion, with more than 30 islands in a severely eroded state.

Despite the urgency, paying for these climate costs is overwhelming. “One of the very difficult issues that we have is our debt. Many vulnerable countries are debt-ridden. For us to spend much money on adaptation, building sea walls, reclamation, embankments, and such things to make sure that we survive the extreme weather is expensive. For us to do that expensive work, we would need the money. Because we already are in so much debt, whatever assistance that we get would go right to the debt holders,” Nasheed told NPR last year. 

Many locals commute from Hulhumalé to Malé for work each day by ferry. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

Glasgow Disappointments

Twelve years later, just before COP 26 in Glasgow, Nasheed shifted his climate message, saying, “I see more people talking about adaptation instead of mitigation. We are all going to lose. It’s not just the Maldives.” After the new agreement in Glasgow, statements from the Maldives delegation indicated disappointment. 

President Ibrahim Solih said on Twitter, “The Maldives welcomes the Glasgow Climate Pact that was agreed to at #COP26. The crucial 1.5C is alive. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. The Maldives calls upon all nations to do all that is necessary to ensure that climate ambition becomes climate reality.”

Maldives’ Environment Minister Aminath Shauna, said that the latest agreement was “not in line with the urgency and scale required” and “the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is a death sentence for us. What looks balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time.”

“COPs are always disappointing and are always watered down to the lowest common denominator. But there were lots of positive outcomes too: a new renewable energy target which has the potential to transform South Asia and will be great for the Maldives-Indian solar industry,” said Roberts. 

An aerial photo of the crowded capital of Malé, one of the most densely populated places in the world. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

A Financial Conundrum

As a “middle-income” country, the Maldives is in a tight financial spot: not eligible for a lot of development assistance in many cases, but also unable to access affordable loans with low-interest rates because of political instability and high climate risks. The U.N. has created funds specifically to help climate-stressed countries, but the money isn’t coming quick enough.

“There is no financing coming from the Green Climate Fund so far for the Maldives. It’s extremely difficult to access these funds,” Mark Lynas, a climate expert who advises Nasheed on climate, and works with the 48-member Climate Vulnerable Forum, told The Diplomat.  

More than 12 years ago, there were promises by wealthy countries for $100 billion in “climate finance” to help climate-vulnerable countries adapt and protect themselves from future climate impacts.  According to NPR, much of that funding came in the form of loans, instead of grants, which developing countries say further strains their climate efforts as they struggle to repay them. The Maldives needs an estimated $9 billion. 

Most islands in the Maldives have little protection from storm surges or future sea-level rises. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

“Climate financing is way too slow and redundant, the money will likely never come,” Roberts said. “There have been two projects since 2009 and they were impossibly bureaucratic. The key problem is that financing its ambitions to net zero, the costs are so high, while fossil fuels are inexpensive. Interest rates are above 10 percent and expensive because of political instability, debt problems, storms, and climate-related risks. If they can focus on access to cheap capital, that would unlock the free market.”

COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation, making it even harder for the government to achieve its climate goals for future emission reduction and resilience. “Whatever we have budgeted for climate finance in our national budgets has gone to dealing with the pandemic,” Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid said recently.

A yellowfin tuna sits in a bucket at the Malé fish market. Much of the best fish is sold to resorts instead of to locals. Still, the sector is the most critical to food security and income for the local labor force. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

New Forms of Resilience

Aside from the giant ongoing construction on Hulhumalé, there are numerous other projects in the works around the country. This year, the Netherlands-based company Dutch Docklands is due to start construction on the world’s first sustainable “Floating City” to mitigate climate effects and stay on top of rising sea levels, which will be eventually connected to Malé.

The project should be less environmentally harmful compared to the dredging necessary to create Hulhulmalé, which has been harmful to the coral reefs that serve as the literal backbone of the country’s physical geography. Coral plays a crucial role in coastal protection as a natural buffer from storms and helps protect underwater life. Coral transplants from resistant species are being “installed” into dead coral areas around the country to survive warmer currents. 

“The floating city is good for allowing housing without land reclamation by Dutch Docklands,” Roberts said.

In the Addu Atoll, the creation of artificial reefs by 3D printing is another solution against bleaching and coral destruction. Floating solar panels are planned for outer islands which can place them in lagoons that are much calmer than the open sea. Last June, after a long campaign by environmental activists headed by the advocacy organization Parley, the government banned single-use plastics. 

More than 60 percent of coral in the Maldives has been bleached by warming sea temperatures. Coral plays a crucial role against wave inundation for the low-lying island nation. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

An Uncertain Future

“It’s going to be very difficult for us to adapt to climate change issues if we do not have a solid and secure democratic governance,” Nasheed said in 2012, after resigning under threat of a coup just four years after being elected.

A backslide to the old regime would likely mean climate mitigation efforts could stall completely or be undone by a different administration. Last year in May, Nasheed survived another assassination attempt, and in late November, former President Abdullah Yameen was released from jail. 

While 30 years of authoritarian rule ended with the 2008 election, but politics have been turbulent in the country ever since. With the next presidential election coming up in September 2023, “there is a huge risk in terms of backtracking,” Roberts said. 

At a nearby surf spot, Hulhumale’s new construction towers are easily visible. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

As for Hulhumalé, a flood assessment detailed in a recent report concluded that Hulhumalé is “built sufficiently high to be safe from flooding under present extreme still water level conditions and with these conditions combined with wave events. This indicates that Hulhumalé is likely to be safe from flooding during the 21st century, as long as the sea-level rise is less than 0.6 m.” 

Fishing boats sit in the harbor on Malé. Aside from tourism, fishing is the biggest industry in the country. Due to the decrease in fish stocks from overfishing, many need to venture out further to fish. Photo by Nicholas Muller.

“If we remain at the Paris levels [2 degrees Celsius] the islands should be OK. Hulhumalé should be enough, although environmentally it’s not great. Sea level rise [alone] is not an existential risk, but [sea level rise] compounded by extreme storm surges is more of a risk. Malé should also be fine with adaptation measures until the end of the century depending on sea-level rise,” said Lynas.  

Despite the resilience of Maldivians, who have lived alongside the sea for generations, the country cannot wait much longer for more durable solutions. Dozens of other islands in the Maldives face a multitude of threats: erosion that continuously chips away at the land, difficulties in disposing of waste, and a constant freshwater crisis. “Our islands are slowly being inundated by the sea, one by one,” Solih, the current president of the Maldives, said at COP26. “If we do not reverse this trend, the Maldives will cease to exist by the end of this century.”