Fighting the tides: Maldives races to reclaim more land as sea levels rise


It only takes a few minutes on a speedboat from the docks of the heaving Maldivian capital before the iconic colours of this island nation come into view.

The intensity of the azure water is almost unreal. This is postcard Maldives.

And amid this shimmering seascape, new islands are emerging.

One, for a future resort, is already dotted with palm trees that will decorate walkways for guests and line a pure white but artificial beach. Another is crammed with diggers and construction workers putting together the foundations of buildings. In the quest for more land, reclamation projects like these are abundant throughout the Maldives.

As these islands form - from sand dredged up from lagoons and seabeds - others fall away.

Most of the country’s 1200 islands are under threat from rising sea levels and being slowly swallowed by the waves through erosion.

Building to ensure safety has become ingrained as a survival tactic in one of the most vulnerable places to climate change.

Sea level rise is a problem for the entire world due to global warming, which causes glaciers to melt and the expansion of water in the ocean.

For the past half a century, sea levels have been rising at an accelerating rate, the fastest in 3,000 years.

Over the last decade, the rate has been about 4mm per year and for low lying states like the Maldives, the situation is already alarming.

Coastal flooding and storm surges will become even more common as temperatures increase.

“Even an incremental increase in sea level rise poses significant challenges for us,” Aminath Shauna, the Maldives' Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Technology told CNA.

“Our coral reefs (are) bleaching and all the islands in the Maldives have run out of freshwater. And we face increased severity of storms, our islands are getting flooded more and more, and the weather has become more extreme,” she said.

“I want people to know that we are actually living. We are experiencing the realities of the impacts of climate change on a daily basis.”

It is on the small islands where the effects are already impeding people's daily lives.

Despite the merits of land reclamation - for climate adaptation and economic and social reasons - there remains strong opposition to the manner in which projects are done in the country.

Building new land is fundamentally reshaping nature. It impacts coral reefs, tidal flows, marine life and vegetation. This can push the problem of erosion to new areas instead of solving it. “We find a lot of projects designed and implemented in a lot of these islands that destroy the natural barriers to climate change. And one of the main issues that we find with it is the fact that people are not consulted in any of these processes,” said Sara Naseem from Transparency Maldives.

“Quite often, these projects are designed in a way that it actually makes the islands more vulnerable to climate change. And so while we raise funds to increase the resilience of the islands, while we raise funds to protect our mangroves and our wetlands, you also find that mangroves are destroyed in another part of the island and coral reefs are destroyed for reclamation projects.”

The government is adamant that its environmental protections and assessments are sincere, with the resilience and prosperity of people central to decisions being made. There are also economic considerations - climate change is proving extremely expensive for this small nation.

“It's a double edged sword for us. And when we think about reclamation, we also know that countries like ours, our reefs, our marine resources, of which we have very much depended on, are impacted because of reclamation,” said Shauna the minister.

“But at the same time, we also need land, we also need higher ground for us to continue to live on these islands.