‘We need development’: Maldives moves from climate threat to mass tourism | Climate crisis

Ohen Mohamed Nasheed, the young and first democratically elected president of the Maldives, said in 2008 that he was seeking to buy a new homeland to prevent his people from being inundated by rising sea levels, it made the country 1,200 Coral Islands the moral leader at the UN climate talks and helped persuade wealthy countries to act.

This week, the Maldives, under new President Abdulla Yameen, apparently changed its environmental course, saying mass tourism and mega-developments rather than solar power and carbon neutrality would allow it to adapt to climate change. and to give its young people hope for the future.

As rumors abound that Yameen negotiated to sell an entire atoll with 19 coral islands and dozens of reefs and lagoons to the Saudi royal family for $10bn (£8bn), his ministers presented plans to geo-design artificial islands, displace populations and attract millions more tourists by creating 50 more resorts.

In a sign of new times, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz is expected to sign a deal to buy or lease Faafu Atoll in the north of the archipelago when he arrives in the Maldives next week with an entourage of 1,000 people. Yameen denied plans to sell the islands, but welcomed the development deal. ” What’s going to happen [to Faafu atoll] is something that would put the Maldives on the world map bolder than anything else,” he said.

Plans for the barely touched paradise could mean Faafu becoming a Riviera-style super resort with water sports, six-star hotels, high-end accommodation and several new airports.

Plans could see islands currently occupied by fishermen being handed over to developers. Photo: Jenny Bates/Jenny Bates for the Guardian

But what’s happening there may just be the start of the Maldives’ transformation from an Indian Ocean backwater with green political ideals to what politicians hope will be a “smart” country with a new capital, high-tech centers, free economic zones and foreigners. universities to attract the world’s elite.

Nearly one in three of the country’s 185 inhabited islands may have to be abandoned and thousands of people relocated to larger islands that can offer schools and health clinics as well as fresh water and waste treatment facilities. said Housing Minister Mohamed Muizzu.

‘[Development of Faafu] does not sell sovereignty. We hope it’s a big investment. We don’t want to move slowly. We want transformational change. We want to bring better living conditions to the whole country in a short time,” Muizzu said.

“Relocated families will be offered free homes on the larger islands,” he said. “We need a lot of investment to provide all the facilities to all the islands. It’s not sustainable to do that. Some islands have only a few hundred inhabitants. It is not possible to keep them there. Many small islands face erosion and groundwater contamination. They need sewage systems and new ports. The priority will be the atoll capitals,” he said.

But instead of local fishermen living modestly on the palm-fringed coral islands, Muizzi said the newly deserted coral islands could be turned over to developers. “Why not use them for tourism?” he said.

Plans to increase tourism from 1.3 million people a year to more than seven million within 10 years have been backed by Shiham Adam, director of the government’s Marine Research Centre. “Tourism and resorts can be the savior of the Maldives. People invest colossal sums. They are not idiots. You can build an island in four weeks with suction dredges, and put rocks around it in a few more weeks.

“The Maldives needs money to survive. Resorts are very positive for the environment. They offer better protection than the community islands because they must protect at least 700m all around them. They become mini marine reserves,” he said.

Fears of an immediate rise in sea levels, which scientists in the latest IPCC report said were accelerating and could mean 75% of the Maldives would be under water by 2100, were not grounded, Adam said. “It won’t happen next year. We have immediate needs. Development must continue, we need jobs, we have the same aspirations as the Americans or the Europeans.

“Climate change is happening, but we are not leaving the Maldives to the waves,” said Environment Minister Thoriq Ibrahim. “We’re not going anywhere. The dream [of making the Maldives carbon neutral] is finished. We seek to be a low carbon country.

“We see that the weather conditions are changing. The dry season is longer, there are shortages of rainwater. Now we have stronger winds and waves. There is more salt water intrusion. Agriculture and fishing are affected.

“But climate change is only one of the problems we face. The most pressing issues are water and sanitation, waste and coastal protection. Only 31 of the inhabited islands of the Maldives have an adequate sewage system. Only six have a waste system. Now is the time for action, not empty promises and words,” he said.

The government accepts that its plans will increase climate emissions, even without counting the thousands of additional flights that will be needed each year to bring in the expected millions of tourists. But he argues that the Maldives produces only 0.003% of global emissions and has the right to develop.

“We want renewable energy, but we don’t have the physical space for solar. You can go up to 30% but beyond that you need storage. With international aid we can reduce our emissions by 30% by 2030, but without climate aid only 10%. We have to be realistic,” he said.

The plans outraged the political opposition. The Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), led by former President Rasheed, currently in exile in London, said Yameen was acting without consultation.

“There is outrage. No information about the proposed project has been shared with the public. The plans would allow a foreign power to control one of the country’s 26 atolls. This amounts to creeping colonization,” he said in a statement.

But the government pushed aside the opposition. “A responsible opposition would always support what is good for the people,” Muizzi said. “With Nasheed, it was a dream. We don’t need cabinet meetings underwater. We don’t need to go anywhere. We need development,” Ibrahim said.

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