Few countries are more starkly aware of environmental issues than the Maldives. With no island measuring more than 1.8 metres above sea level, the country is the lowest on earth and thus among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and rising sea levels.
“[The reason] why tourists come to Maldives is our environment, so issues concerning the environment will affect our tourism as well as our fishing,” says minister of environment Thoriq Ibrahim, referencing the country’s two main industries.
“The Maldives has always been at the forefront of advocating climate change issues and taking them up to the international level,” he adds. Indeed, before the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) existed, the country held the first conference concerned with rising sea levels in Malé in 1989. Shortly thereafter, in 1992, the UNFCC was formed.
The stretch of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean faces a number of environmental challenges. “For any project we do on the islands and sea, we do a very rigorous environmental assessment to see what the damages could be and how we can mitigate a devastating impact,” says Mr Ibrahim. One pressing concern is beach erosion. “Our islands are very small and due to the effects of climate change, the oceans start eating away at the shoreline. Erosion is happening on a lot of islands,” he adds.
This is of utmost concern to the country. In the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, scientists wrote that 75% of the Maldives could be underwater by 2100. “We as a government have already invested a lot of money to protect more than 17 kilometres of coastal protection to make sure that the islands are secure, the investments are secure, and people are safe from the effects of climate change,” says Mr Ibrahim.
While efforts to attract more tourists and build more resorts may seem contrary to sustainability goals, Shiham Adam, head of the government’s Marine Research Centre, says this is not necessarily the case. “The Maldives needs money to survive. Resorts are very positive for the environment,” he told the Guardian newspaper in March. “They offer better protection than community islands because they must protect at least 700 metres all around them. They become mini marine reserves.”
A further issue is water contamination. Of the country’s 186 inhabited islands, until recently only 31 had proper sewage and water treatment systems, covering 37% of the population. “Over the past three years we have completed 18 more islands, meaning we have now covered nearly 50% of the population,” says Mr Ibrahim. This is a significant stride towards the government’s 75% target.
The Maldives aims to be a low-carbon economy, and the government is now targeting that 30% of daytime electricity demand on all the islands be from renewable energy. Only since 2014 have all 186 inhabited islands achieved 24-hour electricity, and bigger islands, such as Addu in the south, have already reached the 30% mark.
“This is an area of possible investment opportunities,” says Mr Ibrahim, noting the world’s first 100% solar powered resort, Gasfinolu, was built in the Maldives. Government incentives include customs-free imports for equipment involved in renewable energy projects.
“We also have net metering regulation now, which means individuals can have their own solar panels and feed any extra power back to the grid for credit,” says Mr Ibrahim. The Ministry of Environment also launches yearly awareness campaigns, such as ‘LED Saves’ and this year’s ‘My Solar’, to encourage better energy consumption habits.
“We need more people in the Maldives to provide renewable energy services. Renewable energy can be harnessed in the Maldives at a very large scale. We just need more innovations,” says Mr Ibrahim.
“Our economy depends totally on the environment, and we need to take care of it. We are doing quite a lot of work to make sure that the islands are safe, liveable – and ready for investments.”