Can the coral reefs of one of the world’s premier diving destinations survive the twin blows of rampant development and climate change? Douglas David Seifert reports
Today there are 105 dedicated resort islands in the Maldives, scattered across an archipelago of 26 vast atolls comprising 1,192 mostly uninhabited individual islands which straddle the Equator in the Indian Ocean. They attract more than a million tourists a year, but the Maldivian government has started an ambitious and many fear overblown plan to increase that number by a factor of five over the next few years.
One hundred new resorts are at the planning stages and many are already under construction. An airport expansion effectively creating a new airport will open this year, which is designed to process 7.5 million travellers annually and the Maldivian authorities are entering into some major infrastructure projects with Chinese and Arab Gulf states backing which will irreversibly change the islands in ways which may render them unrecognisable.
In barely 50 years this string of islands, which rise no more than two metres above sea level, has already been transformed from an occasional trading and substance-fishing existence into a high-end supplier of mass-tourism dreams of desert islands and barefoot luxury. The fear is that the next stage in this development could destroy the purported paradise.
Over the years, one of the main draws of the islands has been the healthy coral reefs and colourful fish, making for excellent snorkelling and scuba diving. The Maldives has marketed itself extremely well as one of the world’s premier scuba-diving destinations. With the archipelago spread over 90,000 square kilometres, there is no shortage of coral reefs and dive sites. Reef surveys have been conducted extensively since the legendary Hans Hass’ first expedition in 1957 (see From Bartering Cowry… on page 28) and the inventory of sea life is impressive: 180 – 250 species of stony coral, 1,100-plus species of fish, 400 species of mollusc, more than 145 species of crab, 48 species of shrimp and 83 species of echinoderm.
Beyond the reef dwellers, 21 species of cetacean can be found around the Maldives, as well as five species of sea turtles, dugongs, giant clams, whale sharks, saltwater crocodiles, and the world’s largest population of reef manta rays. Estimates of the total population of manta rays in the Maldives are said to be as high as 10,000 individuals; some believe the figure could be double that. Without question, the Maldives is the best place in the world to see manta rays.
The Maldives is ranked by the United Nation’s Environment Programme as having the world’s seventh-largest coral reef system within its territorial boundaries. These reefs within the atolls are semi-shielded from wave action but are subject to tidal currents, resulting in a thriving environment for soft corals and gorgonians. The colours displayed by soft coral species found in the Maldives are a breathtaking palette of pastel shades of lavender, pink, yellow, blue or fiery reds and oranges. Walls are lavishly adorned with soft coral but the channels can be challenging to dive at times, due to the sheer intensity of the current.
Schooling fish assemble in these high-current areas to prey upon plankton and smaller fish. The larger predators that remain after years of fishing pressure – snappers, groupers, emperors, barracuda, jacks – gather to feed upon those further down the chain. Although Maldivian waters were declared a shark sanctuary in 2010, with a total ban on killing sharks, local fishermen had a long history of shark fishing and have more or less made sharks regionally extinct, which is why one is hard pressed to see many sharks when diving most of the Maldives, except for grey reef sharks in the southern atolls and at some of the deeper dive sites. The one exception to the shark shortage is the relatively reliable year-round presence of whale sharks aggregating off South Ari Atoll, and the 300-plus, more or less resident, whale sharks in the Maldives.
Creating fantasy islands
The runaway development of resort islands is causing major disruptions in the interconnected ecosystem of the reefs. The main environmental concerns are discharges of waste (both solids and sewage), pesticides, oil and toxic chemicals into the waters around the resort islands. Tourists produce far more waste than locals, with some resorts generating 40 – 200 tonnes per year. Some estimates put tourist-resort island associated waste at 16.5kg per visitor per week (multiply that by 1.3 million visitors…) At present, very few resort islands have waste-management facilities so most waste is incinerated or dumped at sea. Many resorts have sewage pipes leading away from the resorts, out through the reefs so that the outflow dissipates into the ocean ideally, but in practice, it can create a toxic waste hazard which is swept back into the atoll lagoons.
Dredging, harbour construction and land reclamation have had a tremendous impact upon the reefs. There is no construction that does not put a large amount of sediment into the water column. Silt deposits blanket the living corals and smother them or stress the animals until they are vulnerable to disease. Changing long-established water circulation virtually overnight by creating man-made structures in areas that had achieved an ecosystem equilibrium over eons has exacerbated the situation, leading in some cases to hazardous levels of nutrient concentrations from sewage effluent, which can, in turn, cause phytoplankton, algae and seagrass population explosions outcompeting the living coral.
If haphazard waste management and ill-considered coastal management practices were not enough, there is the pressing coral apocalypse triggered by elevated sea temperatures. In 1998, 90 per cent of the shallow hard coral in the Maldives died as a result of elevated sea temperatures. There have also been subsequent mass coral die-off events in the years since.
Coral reefs, in the form known today, have been around for 25 million years and they thrive for the most part in clear, tropical waters within a narrow range of water temperatures, typically between 23 degrees and 29 degrees Celsius. They can tolerate higher temperatures only for limited periods of time. When seawater exceeds the normal maximum seasonal temperature by as little as one degree Celsius for a prolonged duration, the coral reef begins to malfunction.
This occurs because within the tissues of each coral polyp lives an algae-like dinoflagellate called zooxanthellae. The animal and plant partnership has evolved for hard corals to overcome the challenge of living in a nutrient deficient environment. The warm, clear water niche that coral thrives in is sparse on sustenance, so the coral polyps rely upon zooxanthellae to convert light energy from the sun into chemical energy by means of photosynthesis.
The zooxanthellae provide an intricate and essential recycling function within the polyp: metabolic waste is removed and the carbon dioxide produced from the polyp’s respiration is converted into oxygen. Sugars, glycerol and amino acids are by-products created from this process and the polyp uses them to manufacture energy in the form of carbohydrates, protein and fats which it uses to build its reef structure. In return, the zooxanthellae is given a protected habitat and an elevated, unobstructed access to sunlight.
The polyp-zooxanthellae symbiosis is one of the planet’s most enduring partnerships and the basis for the success of coral reefs to grow as the largest living structures on Earth in an environment that is paradoxically resource deprived. They are indispensable to each other and are conventionally indivisible due to their acquired niche in the ocean ecosystem. However, with global warming and elevated sea temperatures beyond the historic maximum seasonal highs, the zooxanthellae weaken or die within a month. When that happens the coral becomes stressed by having dead, non-enriching cells in its tissue and, in a last-chance gambit for survival, expels the zooxanthellae.
Since the zooxanthellae provide 100 per cent of the pigmentation to the translucent coral polyps, when the zooxanthellae have been expelled, the coral exhibits a ghostly pallor and is described as having ‘paled.’ If the sea temperatures drop back to normal, the polyps will acquire another colony of zooxanthellae and life will return to normal. The coral can live another month or so without the zooxanthellae, but its stores of energy become depleted around Day 60 of over-warm sea temperatures and the coral dies. If the coral is stressed by poor water quality, sedimentation, low salinity or pollution, the survival time is diminished.
When all that remains is the calcium carbonate skeleton of a dead coral colony, which is initially bright white, it is described as ‘bleached’. The skeleton doesn’t remain white for long, as algae and cyanobacteria colonise the skeleton and the habitat shifts from coral- dominated, healthy reef to an algae-dominated wasteland. This occurred in 1998 and recovery was slow. First, sea temperatures must return to normal, then coral recruitment from surviving or distant corals has to have favourable conditions to survive and colonise. Coral planulae must find real estate without algal interference and then start acquiring zooxanthellae.
Scientists monitoring the reefs after 1998 estimated the coral cover returning at a rate of three per cent per year. Ten years after the bleaching event of 1998, the reefs may have looked to the untrained observer to be healthy, but in fact many reefs had shifted from huge coral species (Porites species, also known as finger coral and hump coral) and encrusting coral species (Pavona species, leaf coral; Leptastrea, crater coral and Mussidae, brain coral) to be predominated by the fast-growing Acropora species of table corals and staghorn corals.
Some reefs had greater colonisation by corallimorphs – also called mushroom anemones – which are an intermediate order between sea anemones and scleractinian corals. By 2013, fifteen years post-bleaching, many coral species had not recovered, the composition of the reefs had changed, with structural complexity diminished. That there was recovery at all is attributed to the high biomass of herbivorous fish on the reefs. These act as reef gardeners constantly pruning the reefs of algal growth and allowing coral some growing space. In the past, these reef fish were not traditionally targeted for food, as the Maldivian diet is tuna-based.
How much of this stunted recovery is natural and how much is exacerbated by water quality and pollution issues from expansion of resort islands is still a matter of debate. What is not debatable is that from 2014 to 2016, the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event on record occurred and its effects are still being quantified. Beginning in 2014, fuelled by an El Niño, already overly warm surface seawater across the Indo-Pacific slowly spread across the Pacific and continued around the Equator and to latitudes low and high, with warm water invading coral reefs worldwide.
Surface water temperatures reached 31 degree Celsius in the Maldives in May 2016, resulting in paling, then bleaching of up to 95 per cent of the (recovering) coral around many islands; subsequent analysis has determined the average percentage of bleached corals measured around the Maldives was 73 per cent .One of the hardest-hit genus was the branched and tabular species of Acropora. By contrast with the 1998 bleaching event, it was the encrusting (leaf and brain corals) and massive corals (hump and finger corals) that fared the best. The loss of the quick-growing Acropora enabled other corals that do not colonise as rapidly to find their places in the newly available reef occupancy. However, the large-scale loss of Acropora is troublesome for the many fish species that utilise the Acropora’s complicated structure as a refuge and habitat.
Also, the corals associated with thilas (sea mounts) were more resilient than reefs in protected lagoons and their salvation is attributed to a greater volume of current flow. The biggest concerns following this second coral bleaching event are two-fold. Firstly, the period between bleaching events is decreasing, making it challenging for corals to fully recover from one bleaching event before another occurs. And secondly, if the water quality in terms of pollutants, waste, siltation, and disrupted current flow continues to impact the recovery of bleached reefs, there is a danger of algae-dominated reefs taking the place of coral reefs unless the supply of coral juveniles and herbivore fish is abundant.
Many fore-reefs of the Maldives have shifted from health and growth to weakness and erosion. When that occurs, the reefs no longer provide the breakwater benefit against wave action that for millennia gave the islands security against natures caprices, such as storm surges and tsunamis. Increasing tourist infrastructure and numbers of visitors may put unsustainable demands on reef fish populations as a food source. While the Maldivians themselves have mostly eschewed reef fish preferring tuna, tourists are not so fussy.
Another component of global warming is the prospect of melting ice caps triggering sea-level rise – a situation dire for a country that is, on a calm day, essentially 1.5m above sea level. A sea-level rise of half a metre would be catastrophic; some climate prediction models suggest that the seas could rise two metres by the end of the century.
That sinking feeling
In October 2009, the then Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed held the world’s first and only underwater cabinet meeting to bring worldwide media attention to global warming, sea-level rise and the plight of the Maldives. The first democratically elected president and eleven of his ministers donned scuba gear and descended to a horseshoe-shaped table placed at five metres. There, working via hand-signals, they voted ratify to ratify a proposal they later presented to the United Nations Climate Change Conference stating: ‘We must unite in a worldwide effort to halt further temperature rises. Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth.’
This press stunt brought tremendous exposure for the Maldives and its president. Here was a developing nation that was the poster child for the consequences of global warming. In a subsequent interview, Nasheed said: ‘The Maldives has announced a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2020—which means a 100 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide levels by the end of this decade. If we can reduce our carbon emissions so radically, we believe bigger countries can be equally ambitious.’
The Maldives was to become the leader in mitigating global warming through example! But the internal political situation was far from stable. First, it was reported that Nasheed had resigned, then it was reported that he had been arrested for treason, then he left the country for back surgery and sought asylum and is now represented by human rights barrister Amal Clooney. The lifting of his conviction for treason by the Maldivian Supreme Court in February this year has been a major spark in the current repression and imposition of emergency powers by the beleaguered regime.
The next president, Waheed Hassan, did a 180-degree about-face on global warming, sea-level rise and the plight of the Maldives. He stated to a group of businessmen and investors: ‘The good news is that the Maldives is not about to disappear… on the basis of technical and scientific information that we have, we will be able to manage climate change in the Maldives and prolong the life for the islands and for our life on these islands.’
The current president, Abdulla Yameen (the half-brother of Abdul Gayoom who ruled the country from 1968 to 2003, without elections), is committed to a dramatic escalation of development through foreign loans and foreign investment in tourism and infrastructure. Although the Maldives possesses one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at 98 per cent, there are not many employment opportunities for the average Maldivian, besides tourism.
Twenty-five per cent of Maldivians are unemployed. Currently, the population of the Maldives is 341,256, 39 per cent live on the 5.8 sq km island of Malé. Tourism accounts for 33 per cent of the country’s GDP and the government says it needs to expand it further. Minister of Tourism Moosa Zameer announced a target of 1.5 million visitors for 2015, although that target was not reached. The Maldives received 1,389,542 visitors in 2017 with 25 per cent of those visitors coming from China.
The Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on Hulhulé Island, currently at capacity, is being dramatically expanded. It will be able to receive 7.5 million visitors each year when it fully reopens later this year. The airport expansion project is budgeted at USD$800 million (but expected to surpass one billion by the time it is completed) to pay for a new terminal, a 3.2-kilometre runway, a fuel storage area and a cargo complex. This expansion is financed by loans worth US$200 million from the Saudi Fund for Development, the Kuwait Fund and the OPEC Fund, along with a US$373 million dollar loan from the EXIM Bank of China.
China’s Beijing Urban Construction Group is the contractor, raising concerns about Chinese expansion into the Maldives, especially since the Chinese are also building the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, a 1.4 km-long, US$210 million bridge that joins Malé’s eastern edge to the western corner of the island of Hulhulé, where the airport is located. The project is being financed with US$126 million in grant aid and a concessionary loan from China, along with US$12.6 million from the Maldivian state budget. The bridge is part of a master plan to link Malé with the airport and then to connect them both to the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé, where what is being called a Youth City is being built.
The government plans to relocate 70 per cent of the Maldives’ population, presently scattered across 188 islands, to the new city and the Hiyaa housing project involves the construction of 36 blocks of flats to house 80,000 people, according to the president’s office.
While many Maldivians from the poorer islands welcome relocation and the amenities and employment opportunities the government promises to provide in the Youth City, another sizeable vocal segment rebuffs casting away a traditional Maldivian life of fishing and family on islands that they and their families have inhabited for generations. Further, critics and opponents warn that concentrating large numbers of literate, but not necessarily well-educated, economically-challenged young people into a confined district, with time on their hands and access to the internet, combined with a largely subservient role in the tourism industry, is a proven breeding ground for discontent and religious fundamentalist recruitment.
In fact, there have been reports of Maldivians going to Syria to join ISIS and similar fundamentalist jihadists (one said 61 men had been identified as Maldivian jihadis fighting abroad). The Maldives government takes this threat seriously enough to have enacted legislation that any would-be jihadis caught in transit to join in overseas wars would be sentenced to a mandatory minimum ten-year prison term. Justice can seem harsh to outsiders not familiar with Sharia law as practised in this Islamic Republic – in 2015 a local woman was sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery, though the verdict was finally annulled in February after she spent nearly three years on death row. But it does beg the question of the impact on local people of vacationing Westerners with different social and sexual mores and their nightclubs and bars.
The plan to turn the Maldives into an Indian Ocean Dubai needs the support of well-funded international travel and hospitality conglomerates. Tourism Minister Moose Zameer recently said: ‘To fill our tourism targets, we will need 100 new islands with 100 to 200 rooms each. There are about 120 properties that will be developed over the coming years by major international brands, such as the Four Seasons. These developments will have about eight to 10 small hotels per lagoon.
One of the proposed schemes is that of Thailand’s largest brewery, Singha, which is to build nine new resort hotels including a Hard Rock-themed one in the already highly developed South Malé atoll. Other schemes involve Chinese investors. Last year the Maldives signed a free-trade agreement with China after President Xi Jinping made a state visit to the island nation – much to the consternation of India which feels the Maldives was its traditional ally.
To facilitate this expansion of foreign investment the Maldives’ Parliament has passed a constitutional amendment legalising foreign ownership of land. However, the foreign land-buyers must reclaim at least 70 per cent of the desired land from the ocean and invest at least $1 billion in a construction project approved by the Maldivian Parliament. But once that is done, the island is effectively no longer a part of the Republic of the Maldives and is privately owned. This is one of the only places in the world where a country is selling its sovereign territory.
If the expansion comes to fruition, the future of the Maldives is one not so much of idyllic desert islands but of massive hive-like hotels situated on stilts above lifeless lagoons or cheek-by-jowl on reclaimed sand islands, to all appearances like nothing much more than cruise ships that have run aground. All this infrastructure is reliant upon fleets of commercial and cargo aircraft burning a tremendous amount of jet fuel to bring tourists and raw materials to these no longer quite so isolated islands.
Just about every bit of food and drink that is consumed and the majority of construction materials for these hotels, must be brought in by air or by ship. The carbon footprint for Maldivian hospitality is immense and it adds to the surplus of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. So, in a fashion, the Maldives has undergone a transformation from being part of the solution – pledging to be the first carbon-neutral country – to being part of the problem with expansive development plans that are impossible without an indefinite fuel-consumption dependency.
As this feature goes to press, all bets are off as to what the future holds for the Maldives. Former President Mohamed Nasheed is very much back in the picture, as the Supreme Court reversed his conviction and also released other imprisoned opposition leaders. The court also tried to dissolve the parliament but President Yameen is refusing to comply and has enacted a state of emergency which is ongoing. Protests and demonstrators fill Male’s streets as the military tries to retain order and minimise violence. North American, European and Chinese governments have issued travel advisories to their citizens considering visiting the Maldives and dissuading travel at this time. Tourist numbers are down and dropping while expensive infrastructure projects continue, bills to be paid somewhere down the line.
Former President Nasheed could well regain the office of president in the near future. He has been very vocal about the precarious future for the Maldives and has stated: ‘A large, emerging power is busy buying up the Maldives, buying up our islands, buying up our key infrastructure, and effectively buying up our sovereignty. This land grab is very worrying.’ Nasheed says the massive infrastructure projects encouraged by the Chinese and Arab Gulf states are a ‘debt trap’ that will strip the Maldives of its assets and sovereign territory to compensate Chinese and Arab lenders calling in loans that cannot realistically be repaid. Clearly, the Maldives is a story to be continued…