Sun Island Resort, Alif Dhaal Atoll, Maldives. Syd Sujuaan, Unsplash

Climate justice in the Maldives: What’s fair when the sea is swallowing the land?

At ‘ground zero’ for sea level rise, big questions loom on adaptation and relocation

In the Maldives, there’s really no such thing as higher ground.

The Indian Ocean archipelago is one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, with more than 80 percent of its land sitting less than a meter above sea level. Its highest point, optimistically called Mount Villingili, stands at just 5.1 meters.

This means the country is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis: specifically, sea level rise coupled with increasingly frequent violent storms.

Many residents of outlying islands have already moved to the capital, Malé, which is becoming extremely overcrowded – it’s now one of the most densely-populated cities in the world – and itself very exposed to storms and flooding.

The tough questions the Maldives has been facing for decades – who moves, who stays and who decides – are likely to become uncomfortably familiar to many more of us in the coming years as climate change reshapes landscapes across the globe.

As various solutions are trialed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to consider social elements of adaptation and relocation: justice, community building and relationships to place.

Battling the elements – or working with them

Many of the Maldives’ efforts so far rely on expensive, resource-heavy engineering. The government has created a new artificial island, Hulhumalé, that was built up by pumping sand from the seafloor and is connected via a land bridge to Malé. There are also plans in place for a ‘floating city’, which shifts up and down with the tides on a pile drilled into the sea floor and seeks to eliminate the challenge of heightening seas by literally rising above them.

Others are advocating lower-tech, nature-based solutions. Researchers at the University of Plymouth found that coral reef islands naturally collect more sediment as sea levels rise through a process called ‘overwash’ (when high waters deposit sediment inland). This can keep residents high and dry as long as the process is allowed to continue.

But some current mitigation techniques, like building seawalls, “have essentially cut off the reef island from sediment supply from the reef platform and are preventing overwash from occurring,” said the researchers.

“Understanding how islands will physically change due to sea level rise provides alternative options for island communities to deal with the consequences of climate change,” they added. “It is important to stress there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that will be viable for all island communities – but neither are all islands doomed.”

There are resorts across the Maldives, with more on the way. Ibrahim Mohamed, Unsplash

Resort island reckoning and forced relocation

The social questions around these physical solutions are just as complex and multifaceted. One current project is creating four new islands in the southern atoll of Addu. The islands are being created out of sand dredged from the island’s lagoon – a quest that could bury 21 hectares of corals and 120 of seagrass meadows and negatively affect local ecosystems and marine life.

The lagoon forms part of a UNESCO biosphere and currently provides important local livelihoods from diving tourism and fishing. Many locals are worried that the new islands, which will be used for luxury tourism, will not benefit them enough to make the change worth their while.

In other parts of the country, there are concerns that the threat of climate change is being used as an excuse to relocate people from isolated islands for the sake of others’ interests. The story of Gaadhoo Island, whose entire population of around 200 was forcibly resettled in 2016, provides a case in point.

“There is a lot of international geopolitical interest in that area because of the location,” says Aishath Azfa, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and lead author of an article on the topic. “It’s adjacent to an open channel that leads to an important sea route where ships would pass, so there’s huge potential to create a port facility and a military base. And the people who lived there were in the way – so the question was: how could you get them out?”

Unbeknownst to the residents, the government built new houses for them on neighboring Fonadhoo Island, “and then they were given two months’ notice to uproot their entire lives and leave everything behind,” says Azfa.

The value of home

The residents were also split into two groups that were settled on opposite sides of Fonadhoo to reduce the likelihood of collective protest. There were some material benefits to the move, as Fonadhoo had much better health and education services than Gadhoo. But these perks also came with associated challenges, such as a higher cost of living and fewer opportunities for self-sufficiency.

What’s more, people’s grief about leaving their homeland was extremely palpable. “They had lost their identity; they had lost their livelihoods; they had lost family connections and their sense of belonging,” says Azfa.

“How do you place a value on things like memories, feelings of belonging, attachment to identity, cultural practices that they used to do which they are now not able to do, relationships with neighbor and community – intangible things that you couldn’t really measure on a quantitative basis?”

Such ‘intangible things’ remain on Azfa’s mind as she continues her research, now focusing on whether or not Maldivians living on artificial islands are ‘safer’ than those living on natural islands in the face of climate change.

She finds that while some design elements of the artificial islands – higher elevation, reefs further out from the shoreline, coastal vegetation, and flood mitigation systems – can reduce people’s vulnerability to disasters, they don’t yet offer the full picture of climate resilience.

Artificial island construction process in the Maldives in February 2019. Luka Peternel, Wikimedia

A softer approach

“Vulnerability is not only defined by how much you are impacted during a disaster – it also depends on the person’s ability to recover afterwards,” says Azfa. “A huge part of the reason why our islands have survived all these years is that they have strong social capital: people come in and help when somebody’s in need, they check on their neighbors, they share food, they take care of the sick, they function as a community.

“People moving to artificial islands lose a lot of that social capital. So, if a disaster strikes, that really restricts the ability of communities to come together and organize themselves to respond effectively.”

She knows the nature of this loss of social capital not just from research but also from personal experience: she herself is a resident of Hulhumalé who recently moved there from Malé to avoid congestion and overcrowding.

While she enjoys the spaciousness, beaches, and expansive green areas in her new home, “my kids are growing up without knowing who their neighbors are,” she says. “Whereas when we were growing up in Malé, our neighbors were our best friends, and those relationships really mean something.”

Azfa says that future artificial islands should be designed with such elements in mind. “It’s important to not only look at the ‘hard’ engineering features, but also at the ‘softer’ elements – like creating community spaces where people can interact with each other and build that social capital, so they feel connected to each other and to their surroundings.”



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