Maldives : Baa Atoll


The Republic of Maldives consists of 1,192 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls, which run north to south on top of the 960 km Chagos-Maldives-Laccadive Ridge, a vast submarine mountain range in the Indian Ocean. The atolls vary from oval to pearl shaped and they surround lagoons 40-60 metres deep. The islands themselves differ in size, from 0.5 sq km to around two sq km. Some islands are sand banks with sparse vegetation while others are elongated strips of land. No island stands more than 2.4 metres above mean sea level and over 80% are less than one metre high. The population of 328,536 (2012) inhabits 194 of its 1,192 islands that encompass a territory spread over roughly 90,000 sq km of which only about 298 sq km is land, making it one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries. The Maldives capital and largest city Male had a population of 103,693 in 2006. It is located at the southern edge of North Male Atoll, in the Kaafu Atoll. Overall, the country has 7 provinces with the 26 natural atolls and a few island groups on isolated reefs divided into 21 administrative divisions.

The Maldives was dominated from the mid 16th century by colonial powers: Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain. In 1965, the Maldives gained independence from the British, becoming a republic. It was then ruled by a sultanate followed by an autocratic government led by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After protests and political pressure for democracy, the first free elections in the history of the Maldives were held in 2008, leading to the election of Mohamed Nasheed. However, the country then became gripped with constitutional gridlock and following weeks of demonstrations from anti-government protesters, Nasheed was forced to resign in February 2012. Nasheed described his ousting as a coup at gunpoint and his vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, was sworn in as the new president. Islam is the official religion of the Maldives and open practice of any other religion is forbidden and liable to prosecution. In 2012, 35 Buddhist and Hindu artifacts from the 6th century BC were destroyed from the Maldives National Museum by suspected Islamic law enforcers.

On 26 December 2004, following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, the Maldives were devastated by a tsunami. Only 9 islands were reported to have escaped any flooding, while 57 faced serious damage to critical infrastructure, 14 islands had to be totally evacuated and 6 were destroyed. A further 21 resort islands were forced to close because of serious damage. The total damage was estimated at more than US$400 million, or some 62% of the GDP. 102 Maldivians and 6 foreigners reportedly died in the tsunami. The destructive impact of the waves on the low-lying islands was mitigated by the fact there was no continental shelf or landmass upon which the waves could gain height.

The government of President Mohamed Nasheed faced many challenges, including the huge debts left by the previous regime, the economic downturn following the 2004 tsunami, corruption, human rights abuses and increasing drug use. Taxation on goods was imposed for the first time in the country and social welfare benefits were given to those above 65 years of age, single parents and those with special needs. However, Nasheed became known worldwide for his passionate views about the impacts of climate change and declarations about creating a sovereign wealth fund with money earned from tourism that could be used to purchase land elsewhere for Maldivians to relocate should rising sea levels inundate the country. In 2009 he made a bold pledge to make the Maldives carbon neutral within ten years at UK film premiere of The Age of Stupid and followed this up with the famous underwater cabinet meeting as part of the 350 campaign. Sadly, Nasheed’s popularity on the international eco-circuit began to wane after more offbeat suggestions like an 18-hole floating golf course connected through underwater tunnels began to hit the headlines. Less frivolously, environmentalists were beginning to question his apparent contradictions of combating climate change with announcements that Male International Airport was set to be upgraded through an expansion plan that would see the site gain a brand new terminal capable of accommodating 12 aircraft and a substantial seaplane port, from which a maximum of 42 aircraft would be able to operate. These new additions would boost the current capacity of 2.6 million passengers to 5 million. The government was also working to construct 11 new regional airports and planning to build a new oil storage facility at Haa Alif atoll in the northern region with a capacity for more than 200 tons of oil which would be 10 times greater than the present facility at Funadhoo.   

It is doubtful whether the Maldives will ever reach energy independence but in July 2012 the new President revived Nasheed’s earlier proposals to enforce a $3 tax on tourists to help fund the carbon neutral master plan. Rather than a mandatory tax the government has proposed the idea of a voluntary fund for around the million visitors coming to stay each year at one of the 100 island resorts. If each tourist contributed $10 then that’s $10 million a year and a substantial contribution towards meeting the cost of further renewable energy projects, constructing more energy efficient buildings, introducing waste recovery systems and switching its fossil-fuel reliant land transportation to electric vehicles or hybrids. Few of the present resorts could be termed eco-friendly ‘green islands’ but Soneva Fushi situated within the Baa Atoll and the Atoll Ecosystem-based Conservation (AEC) project initiated in 2003 to design, test and demonstrate a management system that will secure and sustain the rich biodiversity and ecological processes of the Baa Atoll are a good case study for the country.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

The State Electric Company (STELCO) operates power systems in 23 islands providing electricity to 50% of the population. Their largest operation is in Male with an installed capacity of 48.36MW and a 26 km underground 11kV distribution network feeding power to 99 distribution transformers to provide electricity to 42,478 customers. Imported fossil fuels, mainly diesel, are only used for power generation. However, the Government now has a special focus on renewable energy after the pledge in March 2009 by President Nasheed to make the Maldives the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2020. As a first step, a French based strategic environmental consultancy undertook a Carbon Audit of the Maldives 2009 greenhouse gas emissions, projections for 2020 and priority areas to be addressed in order to reach carbon neutrality.

This report and presentation provide a useful overview on the past, ongoing and future status of renewable energy in the country. Neither includes the grandiose plans by STELCO, GE/Falcon Energy and then Chinese company XEMC to develop the government’s flagship renewable energy project, the Gaafaru windfarm in North Male Atoll, which now appear to have been dropped. This would have involved XEMC installing wind turbines capable of generating 50MW and submarine cables servicing the greater Male area under a build, own and operate arrangement. A backup liquefied natural gas plant was also planned capable of providing up to 30MW on windless days, or when there was not enough wind to meet demand.

The first of a 652kW solar project across six islands in the Maldives was launched in January 2012. Through a power-purchasing agreement signed by STELCO with Renewable Energy Maldives (REM),  61kW panels fixed to the roof of Muhyiddin school on the island of Villingili were switched on by Germany’s parliamentary state secretary at the federal ministry for the environment, nature conservation and nuclear safety, Katherina Reiche. German solar firm, Wirsol, provided technology and financing. In Villingili, panels will be installed at six sites in total: 61kW at Muhiyiddeen school, 74kW at Eduruvehi, 28kW on Cinamale, 40kW on the Judicial Building, 58kW on the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) flats and 33kW on the powerhouse.

Signed in June 2011, the panels to be rolled out include 294kW in Villingilli, 64kW in Guraidhoo, 78kW in Himmafushi, 120kW in Maafushi, 48kW in Kaashidhoo and 48kW in Thulusdhoo. REM had initially proposed a system to provide 70% of daytime power across six islands on the back of the government’s proposed feed-in tariff, but STELCO reduced the installation to 30% with the intention of later expanding it. Power from the solar panels will be sold - and fixed - at US$0.25 per kWh, compared to the current cost of around US$0.35 cents per kWh. Founder of Wirsol, Stefan Riel, said the six-island 652kW installation would avoid the equivalent of 800 tons of carbon entering the atmosphere every year.

In June 2012 the Kyocera Corporation along with Toyota Tsusho Corporation and Wakachiku Construction announced they were working to install 675kW of Kyocera’a solar power generating systems at schools and other public facilities under the ‘Project for Clean Energy Promotion in Male’  being funded through the Japanese government’s ODA project. The first phase of the project has been completed, with a total of 395kW of solar power having been installed at five locations, which will generate an annual 465,227kWh of power and offset roughly 146 tons of CO2 per year. A second phase has also been decided upon which will see another 280kW installed at five more locations thus making the total project the largest installation of solar power in the country. The project is using Kyocera’s 210-watt module, with 1,896 installed in the first phase and another 1,344 planned for the second phase. Due to the high occurrence of typhoons on the island, the backsides of the modules have been reinforced with extra support bars for enhanced wind-pressure resistance.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

Solid and hazardous waste management is one of the greatest environmental challenges in the Maldives. The worsening situation is attributed but not necessarily limited to rapid growth in population, which is unevenly distributed within the inhabited islands, changing consumption patterns and limited land area. The average rate of generation of waste in Male is approximately 2.48kg per person per day and in the atolls 0.70 kg. In the resorts the average rate of waste generation per guest per day is 7.2kg. There is little, if any, waste segregation practiced at household level, most resorts or at the collection yards on Male. It is simply removed and placed on a barge for transfer to the municipal landfill site known as Thilafushi  – an artificial island 7km long by 200m wide – and now aptly described as an elongated semi-circle of hell where stinking smoke from pyres of plastics streams into the sky, while poisons leach out into its lagoon. Some of the waste is incinerated but there is an alarming rise in batteries, asbestos, lead, electronic white goods and other potentially hazardous materials just being dumped. Local environmentalists say that more than 330 tons of rubbish is brought daily to Thilafushi and that the island is growing at a square metre per day. Also on the island there are dozens of factories, a mosque and homes for 150 Bangladeshi migrants who wade through the sludge and brave the stench and flies. They sift through the mounds of refuse looking particularly for metals their employers can then compact into blocks for sale to India.

The UNDP funded a consultant in 2004 with the specific objective of developing the framework for a National Solid Waste Management Policy to identify existing barriers preventing the delivery of efficient waste management services and to recommend appropriate interventions for their removal. For several years there have been plans to replace Thilafushi with a modern plant to turn garbage into electricity and an even bigger plant to generate power from renewable biomass but as yet nothing has come of them. An existing agreement made with India’s Tatva Renewable Energy for waste disposal in the capital Male region has reportedly been scrapped in favour of a cheaper system. The Maldives Environmental Management Project has made some progress in 2012 by lifting accumulated waste in 5 pilot islands in the North Region even although it does seem rather counter productive just moving it to the site at Thilafushi. Hopefully, a more robust waste management system can be developed for each island with dedicated collection services, recycling centres and composting facilities.

Water Management & Security

Shallow ground water aquifers and rainwater are the two main sources of fresh water in the Maldives. However, in many islands the aquifers are depleted because the extraction of water exceeds natural recharge through rainfall and also due to intrusion of salt and wastewater into the aquifer. In the outer islands reliance on rainwater harvesting is greatest and almost each house will have a high-density polyethylene tank donated by the government after the tsunami of 2004 as their primary source of drinking water. In the Male greater area piped desalinated water has been used for household consumption since 1985. This service is provided on a metered basis by Male Water Sewerage Company and demand has increased tremendously. The company has developed energy recovery systems for new desalination plants that will provide 50% energy savings.

Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production

Permaculture is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture." It is concerned with the designing of ecological human habitats and food production systems. As a land use and community building movement, it strives for the harmonious integration of human dwellings, microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water into stable, productive communities. Mark Garrett is a permaculturist who has been working in the Maldives at the Soneva Fushi resort designing and building the “Waste to Wealth” eco centro project. The major challenge was how to improve a sandy soil with little or no organic matter without the use of imported cow dung from India since there was no guarantee of it being pesticide free. Permaculture-based solutions can handle most forms of waste streams coming into and produced by the resort and turn them into some form of wealth such as composts, mulches, charcoal, biochar and soil conditioners that in turn help grow sustainable organic food producing gardens.

Biochar is a type of charcoal produced through the ‘slow cooking’ (pyrolysis) of plant wastes in a simple kiln. If mixed with soil it will lock up its carbon content for hundreds if not thousands of years. As such, it is a safe, tried and tested environmental form of carbon capture and storage. Biochar also enables greater water retention and reduces nitrous oxide and methane emissions. It also helps with soil quality and in 2009 the Maldives partnered with Carbon Gold, the world’s leading biochar developer based in England, to implement a project on three islands to produce biochar from surplus and sustainably sourced woody biomass, like coconut shells and waste from water melon plantations.

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

Tourism began to be developed on the archipelago at the beginning of the 1970s and the first resort Kurumba Maldives welcomed its first guests on 3rd October 1972. The industry has grown rapidly since and been marketed by the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board into a quintessential holiday destination. The climate is ideal for visitors to get engaged in a variety of water sports and the country is ranked among the best recreational diving destinations in the world. As is the case in many island nations, tourism has become the key platform for national economic development. In 2008 tourism accounted for 27% of GDP and about 29% of Government revenue directly. It also accounts for more than 24,000 jobs. As of 2008, 89 resorts in the Maldives offered over 17,000 beds and hosted over 600,000 tourists annually. Since then, an additional 62 resort development projects representing over 10,000 beds have been allocated and they are in various stages of construction. In the past, resort development was concentrated in the central region of the country within easy reach of the Male International Airport. However under a new policy, construction of mid-range hotels and cheap guesthouses on islands - including some of the uninhabited ones – has been allowed in order to make the country a more affordable holiday destination. This is a deleterious move that is likely only to compound and generate additional environmental impacts.

Whilst there are already many tourist resorts in the Maldives very few stand out as being ‘green islands.’ When Eva and Sonu Shivdasani built Soneva Fushi as well as their home on the deserted island of Kunfunadhoo located in the heart of the Baa Atoll in 1995 they had no idea that their intensely personal vision of a locally crafted villa and environmentally responsible lifestyle would form the basis of a successful collection of world-class hotels, resorts and spas. But that’s exactly what happened. Soneva Fushi was the first ‘castaway’ resort in the Maldives and stills works in partnership with the Soleni Dive School. It went on to pioneer a trend for back-to-nature luxury holidays and today has everything from a 70kW solar photovoltaic power plant, waste recycling centre, organic herb and vegetable gardens to a Carbon Sense Fund whereby 2% of resort revenue is invested into carbon mitigation projects to offset pollution created by the international flights, floatplane and boat rides necessary to get to the island. The resort has also experimented with a deep water cooling project to provide air conditioning and lobbied strongly to bring about a ban on shark fishing in the Maldives.

Soneva Fushi established the blueprint for a highly acclaimed international business Six Senses Resorts & Spas with award-winning properties in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Under Eva’s and Sonu’s direction the Six Senses brand gained a global following with its social and environment sustainability policy before being sold to Pegasus Group in 2012. Today the Soneva Group (the new company formed following the divestment of the Six Senses and Evason brands) has many imitators, but few equals. The acronym SLOW LIFE (Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences) explains the Soneva philosophy and an annual symposium is held to accelerate progress towards sustainable business practices in the tourism industry, with a particular focus on supporting small island states. The company is committed to leading the fight against climate change within the tourism sector with Soneva Fushi fully decarbonising by the end of 2013 and other resorts to follow. The Soneva Group has banned imported water and plastic bottles and makes its own still and carbonated water in reusable glass bottles at the resorts themselves. 50% of the water revenue is donated to 3 major water charities.

The Banyan Tree Group has four eco-friendly resorts in the Maldives but what set them apart from others are their two in-house marine labs at Vabbinfaru and Velavaru. Both have been involved in major projects such as tsunami recovery efforts, working with endangered and threatened marine species, planting coral gardens, mentoring at-risk children, and sharing sustainable livelihood methods with local communities. The Baros Maldives resort also has a dedicated marine centre and runs the first ever eco dive centre in the country where guests can learn how to conduct surveys under the internationally recognized Reef Check programme. The Park Hyatt Hadahaa is the first boutique luxury resort in the previously untouched Southern Atolls and was the first property in the Maldives to follow and been successfully benchmarked against the EarthCheck Planning & Design Standard during construction. In 2012 it won the coveted Green Good Design Award for its ongoing commitment to sustainable design and their resident marine biologist has a blog.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

The atolls of the Maldives are typical coral islands with a 15cm thick layer of humus forming the top layer of soil. Below the humus layer are 60cm of sandstone, followed by sand and then fresh water. Due to high levels of salt in the soil near the beach, vegetation is limited to a few flowering plants and shrubs. In the interior of the islands, more vegetation such as mangrove and banyan grow. Coconut palms, the national tree, are able to grow almost everywhere on the islands and are integral to the lifestyle of the population. In total, about 583 species of plants have been recorded of which 260 are believed to be native or naturalized and 323 are cultivated plants introduced for agriculture and ornamental purposes. Nearly 170 species of birds have been recorded and most are migratory species. The Maldives enjoys some of the richest marine biodiversity anywhere in the world. The country’s 21,000 sq km of coral reefs are the seventh largest in the world, representing some 5% of the global reef area, and home to 18 coral species, at least 1090 species of fish, 5 species of sea turtles, 400 species of molluscs and 83 species of echinoderms. Many crustacean species are there as well: 120 copepod, 15 amphipod as well as over 145 crab and 48 shrimp species. A National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan was produced in 2002 with an update provided in 2010.

The country has declared 42 protected areas but until recently lacked the necessary elements for effective management. Habitat destruction and over exploitation are major threats to the biological diversity of the Maldives. Coastal activities like harbour development and land reclamation adversely impact reefs around such areas. Coral mining for construction of buildings and coastal protection is a major concern. Land clearance for housing threatens the scarce terrestrial biological diversity of many islands, especially the highly populated islands. Over-exploitation of high valued reef resources such as sea cucumber, groupers, sharks and giant clams has become a major issue in recent years. Timber harvesting threatens the survival of old growth and hardwood trees on uninhabited as well as inhabited islands. In addition, affects of increased sea temperatures, due to global warming on the health of the coral reefs are a major concern. The State of Environment 2011 report provides an analytical overview focusing on 10 key environmental challenges confronting the Maldives today.

Besides the Ministry of Environment and Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and government Marine Research Centre there are several environmental NGOs operating in the country. Bluepeace is the oldest and most notable having worked on numerous campaigns and projects. Their VULNERABLE photo exhibition documents the vulnerability of the fragile coral islands and depicts a nation under threat, as it tries to safeguard an age-old culture and lifestyle that could be erased with rising seas and climate change. Ecocare also runs campaigns as well as having established a birds and insects database. Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll was awarded MPA status in 2009 and is a world famous feeding site for up to 250 giant manta rays that aggregate in times of plankton accumulation during the southwest monsoon. The Manta Trust supports the Maldivian Manta Ray Project whose leader has warned that without proper management and enforcing of regulations these majestic animals could soon be driven away because of the sheer volume of tourist boats and people in the water inhibiting their ability to feed as well as inherent risk of them being hit by propellers. The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme is based within the new South Ari Atoll MPA and uses photo identification, telemetry tagging and genetic analysis to help determine their numbers, movements and habitat requirements.

Valuing nature is undoubtedly a complex task. The Atoll Ecosystem-based Conservation (AEC) project co-financed by the Global Environment Facility and implemented through the UNDP published this report in 2009 on the economic case for biodiversity conservation in the Maldives after working in the Baa Atoll. In the Maldives, atoll ecosystems provide the basis for the country’s existence as well as life-supporting services such as shoreline protection and the goods upon which the economy entirely depends, namely, fishing and tourism. The AEC project design had to reconcile the challenges to maintaining the structure and function of atoll ecosystems, the viability of protecting globally significant biological diversity and managing human pressures on these, and at the same time promoting sustainable livelihoods and environmental security. The project aimed to design and demonstrate an effective management system for atoll ecosystem conservation and sustainable development, with Baa Atoll as a pilot, which could then be replicated throughout the country. The AEC project led also to biodiversity conservation objectives being reflected in the national development planning processes and plans, and improved government policies that help effectively manage biodiversity. At the local level, island development plans and land-use plans were developed for all 13 islands of Baa Atoll, based on biodiversity conservation principles. The Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere reserve in June 2011 as a direct result of the AEC project. A new office situated in Eydhafushi mandated with managing and developing the reserve opened the following year employing around ten staff.

At the Rio+20 summit held in Brazil in June 2012 the Maldives president announced he wanted to turn all 1,192 coral islands of his country into a marine reserve by 2017. Such an initiative would make the country the first in the world wholly surrounded by a marine reserve and greatly enhance their role within The Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project. The intended policy of the reserve would allow only sustainable and eco-friendly methods like traditional pole and line fishing for tuna and exclude long-lining, purse-seining and other destructive techniques like trawling. One option under consideration is a potential solution suggested by the Blue Marine Foundation to create a ‘doughnut’ marine reserve. This would allow sustainable fishing to continue within 75 miles of land and for a no-take marine reserve to occupy the remainder of sea out to the 200 miles limit.

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

Although the Maldives contributes minimally 0.001% to the global greenhouse gas emissions, it is among the most susceptible to impacts of the changes in climate. The magnitude of sea level rise projected in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report threatens the very existence of life and livelihood in the Maldives. The IPCC forecasts that the seas are likely to rise by up to 59 cm by 2100 due to global warming. With more than 80% of the land area of Maldives less than a metre above mean sea level, the slightest rise in sea level will prove extremely threatening. This is further aggravated by the variation of the tide. Many islands already suffer inundation and shoreline erosion because of their low elevation. The inundation often leads to freshwater shortages and disease outbreaks.

Given the close proximity of the settlements to the sea and low elevation of the islands, homes of people are at a severe risk of inundation even with lower rises in sea levels. At present 44% of the settlement footprints of all islands are within 100m of coastline. This translates to 42% of the population and 47% of all housing structures being within 100m of coastline. The small size of the islands and their low elevation also makes human settlements defenseless against severe weather events and storm surges. Over the last 6 years more than 90 inhabited islands have been flooded at least once and 37 islands have been flooded regularly or at least once a year. The beaches that represent 5% of the total area of the Maldives, are of unconsolidated nature and naturally dynamic and unstable. More than 97% of inhabited islands reported beach erosion in 2004, of which 64% reported severe beach erosion. More than 45% of 87 tourist resorts have also reported severe erosion.

UNDP has supported the government in the preparation of their National Adaptation Programme of Action. Various adaptation measures have been designed and implemented in areas such as coastal protection, freshwater management and coral reef protection supported by organizations such as Mangroves for the Future. A breakwater has been constructed around the capital Male costing around US $30 million. The government has also taken action to protect the coral reefs by reducing import duty on construction materials and prohibiting use of coral for government buildings and tourist resorts and by banning coral mining from house reefs.