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Maldives: Environmental Protection Laws Bypassed

Reclamation Projects Harm Local Island Communities, Deny Climate Justice

Workers at a construction site in the Maldives, December 9, 2019. © 2019 Carl Court/Getty Images
  • The Maldives government has ignored or undermined environmental protection laws, increasing flooding risks and other harm to island communities.
  • Maldives authorities have failed to heed mitigation requirements mandated by environmental assessment reports or provide resources for ongoing monitoring of the environmental impact of development projects.
  • The Maldives’ international climate finance providers should require robust evaluation of reclamation and other development projects for potential harm, and implementation of appropriate mitigation measures. 

(Brussels) – The Maldives government’s land reclamation projects have ignored or undermined environmental protection laws, increasing flooding risks and other harm to island communities, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Reclamation projects are often rushed, lack proper mitigation and monitoring, and proceed without adequate public consultation. The Maldives’s newly elected president, Mohamed Muizzu should ensure that human rights and the protection of the environment are central to development policies.

The 21-page report, “‘We Still Haven’t Recovered’: Local Communities Harmed by Reclamation Projects in the Maldives,” documents how the Maldives government has failed to consult local communities ahead of development projects, heed environmental impact assessment (EIA) mitigation requirements, and provide resources for ongoing monitoring of development projects in the northern island of Kulhudhuffushi and the southern atoll of Addu. These deficiencies have further harmed residents already at risk from the effects of changing weather patterns and rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, coastal erosion, and increased flooding.

“While the international community needs to do more to help the Maldives adapt to climate change, the Maldives doesn’t get a free pass to ignore its own environmental laws and international obligations,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Maldives government should ensure that land reclamation and other development policies do not violate the livelihood rights and safety of at-risk island communities.”

Although the Maldives has established several laws to prevent such harm, there is lax enforcement. Poorly regulated development has stripped islands of natural resources and deprived communities of access to fresh water, public land, and natural resources such as fruit trees. Large-scale reclamation damages the fragile coral reef, which underlies atolls and serves as a natural barrier to limit the impact of storms, floods, tsunamis, and rising sea levels.

In Kulhudhuffushi, the government overrode environment regulators and buried 70 percent of the island’s mangroves to construct a new airport. The loss of the mangroves has harmed already at-risk local communities, in many cases devastating livelihoods and pushing people into poverty. One small business owner in Kulhudhuffushi described the economic impact on herself and other women when the wetland was destroyed for the airport. “We used to grow bananas—the trees were torn up for development,” she said. “Now we have to import bananas. Development to us means imported fruits no one has the money for.”


July 7, 2016 : Image © 2023 CNES / Airbus. Google Earth March 18, 2022 : Image © 2023 CNES / Airbus. Google Earth

Satellite imagery comparison between July 7, 2016 and March 18, 2022 shows the area impacted by the construction of the Kulhudhuffushi Airport in the Maldives. 

Climate change is an immediate existential threat in the Maldives, with 80 percent of the islands less than a meter above sea level and many experiencing acute shoreline erosion, saline intrusion, and other effects of climate change. The Maldives has been a strong voice in international forums on climate-related issues. But the government’s domestic policies belie its call for global action on climate change, as it has undermined or bypassed key mitigation measures in pursuit of tourism and other infrastructure development projects.

The Maldives government has committed to action on climate change and has sought financial support for adaptation. Countries and institutions providing climate financing should continue to do so but also require the Maldives government to enforce its environmental protection laws, ensure independent oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency, and consult local island communities.

“The new Maldives government has an opportunity to reverse development practices that have posed a growing threat to livelihoods and a safe environment,” Gossman said. “The Muizzu administration should adopt practices that respect people’s rights in affected communities and protect the Maldives from further environmental degradation.”

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