Addu land reclamation

A tale of consequences and possibilities.

Source - Visit Maldives

Source - Visit Maldives

Home to nearly 20,000 people, the southernmost atoll of Addu is one that has been pivotal in modern Maldivian history in terms of politics, and finally President Ibrahim Solih’s administration has given the green light for a manifesto promise of development. This entails quite the terraformation, and concerns have been raised in defence of the fragile environment.

In November 2021, Economic Minister Fayyaz Ismail had stated that decentralising the Maldives economy is a high priority of the administration, and to achieve this, special economic zones were to be established across the country, with Addu being a main focus. He added that development of the Gan International Airport, improving the water and sanitation system, as well as developing the tourism industry of the south are currently underway, and earlier this month the first major step was taken. 

Addu has always been overlooked by nearly every administration, even being forced into a corner when considering infrastructure development. The locals have always been a pivotal group of voters that could swing elections on its end, and their land has been the crux of many a promise. Yet with a nation that is dependant on tourism, Addu falls far behind with only two resorts currently operating in the area, while many other atolls reap the benefits of multiple international hotel chains operating in their waters. 

The geography of Addu has not been to their advantage in terms of resort prospects, and the connecting flight duration incurred by any visitors landing at the Velana International Airport has been another factor that has not made the location the most popular comparatively. However, the hospitality industry has a foothold, given the fact that Addu boasts some of the most pristine underwater life as well as natural flora and fauna above the water level, and there are fears that land reclamation may put a stop to that.

The plan is to dredge up the sand in the central lagoon and distribute it to shallower coastlines and further increase the land size. Right from the start, such a project would destroy the lagoon bed and also raise silt that would reduce the clarity of the lagoon waters. Furthermore, where the sand gets deposited would lose coral and reef ecosystems, forcing changes to the water currents and overall disruption to the fragile ecosystem of Addu. Reports also state that the current scuba-diving services would face losses up to USD7.7 million a year due to the disruption and expected destruction to the surround waters. 

Yet, the land reclamation is aimed at solving two major issues. The first is that of housing infrastructure, as the latest sentiment is that there really isn’t enough land available in Addu to eke out a dignified living for the cramped up families residing there. The lack of economic opportunities means that there is a lack of financial independence within the local population, so those that desire better means are forced to relocate their livelihoods to the central region. Those that remain make do with the current state of affairs, and the infrastructure development has been taking a backseat in the priorities of the leadership.

By increasing the housing opportunities, and with that allowing more local businesses the space and opportunity to operate would revive the local economy. The same effect is being seen, albeit slowly, at the Hiyaa apartment complexes, where the expanded residential area has inspired local entrepreneurs to conduct small business ventures. Of course, one must not dismiss the issues of safety and security in those complexes, yet there are lessons there to be learnt as well.

The second issue is the lack of tourism related development. While Addu is famous for having multiple scuba diving centres, even their revenue is limited to the travellers who opt for this specifically, as each region of the country offers unique underwater experiences. However, with only four resorts and nine guesthouses to cater for the southern atoll — to give a comparison, islands like Ukulhas in Alif Alif house over thirty guesthouses with multiple resorts within the vicinity — the industry potential is stifled and unable to expand as much as could be possible, and the dredging and development project seeks to expand this avenue.

A development concept shared on the Addu City Council website published by Discover Addu had described in colourful detail how tourism could be expanded for Addu. The note had described certain lagoon spots in the atoll that could be sustainably developed into resorts, increasing the employment count by at least another 2,000 jobs, and nearly 1,200 rooms, but these were all estimates based on the situation as it was before. With the dredging program increasing land size, it can be expected that any future hospitality establishments would be much more capable in terms of capacity and services.

The issues raised by the environmentalists are valid yet the local population does not seem to find much issue with it. They are more enamoured by the possibilities that may well be created for them in the future. The issues of the lagoon being clouded by silt can be alleviated by ensuring the dredging is done in one attempt rather than a continuous long term process. The coral beds that would undoubtedly be affected and destroyed can be regrown, albeit slowly, by extensive coral plantation programs if the government chooses to do so. The coastlines which are unnatural would certainly face erosion, but this can be alleviated by ensuring mangroves are planted and maintained and the beaches employ sustainable, environmentally friendly methods of mitigation.

The sea level rise is not going to be stopped by Maldivians choosing to not alter the environment for progress. The entire country could switch to renewable resources and still not make a single dent in the increasing carbon content of the atmosphere. The entire nation switching to recycling all waste has little chance at stopping international waters from carrying garbage to the Maldivian beaches. With these sombre realisations, and the many lessons learnt from history, the nation and her people can achieve development that is sustainable, and set examples for the rest of the world to follow.

Addu is a part of the Maldives that stands strong, proud, and unique, and the people who live there, those who call Addu home, deserve a chance to see the pinnacle they have been promised. It is paramount that this dredging program adheres to the strictest parameters to ensure no undue damage is done; and the administration must ensure this. This could likely be the ushering of a golden age for Addu, but only if handled with utmost care with the most stringent of mitigating measures.

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