Male (Maldives Archipelago)
From our special correspondent
They do not exist on the maps. White spots between sky and sea, the four islands split the horizon, 50 minutes by boat from Malé, the capital of the Maldives. They have just emerged from clear lagoons, filled with thousands of tons of sand. On one of them tractors and migrant workers are busy. A concrete jetty is being built, beaches are being carved out, and huge boulders are forming dykes. Surrounded by turquoise waters, the artificial island is bare, before coconut trees are transplanted there, in a harmony that will come close to perfection.
Here is played out the other side of a decor that the richest tourists on the planet will not see. In three months, they will discover the fantasized paradise that was sold to them for several hundred dollars a night. For this, man has made himself a god: he models entire islands by shaping the sand as he pleases. “Backfilling has become the norm in the space of a decade. Two-thirds of the inhabited islands have been enlarged, and dozens of artificial islands have been created, warns Ibrahim Mohamed, an environmental consultant. These major works are presented as the only option in terms of development and adaptation to the rise in sea level.
The Maldives could be the first nation in the world to disappear by the end of the century. For the 1,192 small islands grouped into 26 atolls at water level, climate change is the announcement of a shipwreck. By 2050, 80% of the territory will be uninhabitable, according to the United States Institute of Geological Studies. “Our islands are submerged one by one,” President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said helplessly at COP27 held in Egypt in November 2022. In the immediate future, the archipelago is trying to gain space . Capital of 2.6 km2 with 193,000 inhabitants, or a third of the population, Malé is the densest island on the planet.
In order to relieve congestion, the satellite island of Hulhumalé was created in 1997, which is connected to it by a 1.6 km bridge. To cope with the rising waters, the giant artificial island was built two meters above sea level by filling in two 403-hectare lagoons. “No one had the expertise to create an island of this magnitude. We had to learn everything,” admits Shahid Ahmed Waheed, urban planner with the state-owned company in charge of the site. Today, 90,000 people live in Hulhumalé, and life is good there. Couples walk on the beach and the cafes are lively. It’s hard to imagine that twenty-five years ago, there was only the sea here.
If modern life and the space offered by Hulhumalé seduce the Maldivians, this pharaonic construction site has an ecological price. Like all infilling works, it led to the destruction of the coral reef and seagrass beds, and the modification of currents. It destroys the marine ecosystem and increases the vulnerability of the archipelago. According to a study by Imperial College London, the Hulhumalé area is now more exposed to erosion and flooding. The landfill causes disaster “faster than long-term sea level rise scenarios”.
A few dozen kilometers south of Malé, on the beach of the pretty island of Fulidhoo, the elders describe, with large gestures, the displacement of land and sand, and the nibbled trees and dykes. “Almost all of the coral reef that existed when I was a child has disappeared”, saddens Adam Naseer, a 68-year-old fisherman, before joining the prayer at the mosque. “Our entire economy depends on the health of the coral reef system and aquatic ecosystems,” said Shafiya Naeem, director of the government’s marine research institute.
With construction projects all over the place, the disaster is not about to stop. Since 2015, phase 2 of Hulhumalé has continued, a portion disfigured by 16 towers of 25 floors, which has attracted masses of Maldivians in search of housing. In a few years, they will be able to take a new bridge by car to reach the islands under construction of Thilafushi and Gulhi Falhu, future “suburbs” of Malé.
At the heart of this pharaonic project, the port and development of Gulhi Falhu require a backfilling of 13.75 km2. “This project is in a protected area,” says Humay Abdulghafoor, of the NGO Save Maldives. But it has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which generally validates government proposals. In the Addu atoll, another gigantic project aims to fill 190 hectares in the heart of a nature reserve protected by Unesco for its extraordinary biodiversity. “The cost of environmental destruction has officially been calculated between 343 and 858 million dollars, underlines Humay Abdulghafoor. Not to mention the sand, which is not considered a resource. »
Unaware of the misdeeds caused, the construction sites are accelerating, precipitating the dependence of the Maldives on its Indian and Chinese creditors. With the approach of the presidential election scheduled for September 9, political promises relating to new housing, against a backdrop of backfilling, are multiplying. “The political class operates in a culture of corruption,” says consultant Afrah Ismail. In particular through agreements between government and companies, which exchange backfill for hotels. Revealing these shady practices, a major scandal revealed the embezzlement of at least 80 million dollars (75.9 million euros), operated in 2014, via the operating licenses of around fifty islands and lagoons ceded to large tourism companies.
This sector, which represents 28% of GDP and 1.3 million visitors a year, is the most powerful lobby in the Maldives. And an inveterate follower of backfilling. More than 132 islands are occupied by “resorts”, where bikinis and alcohol are authorized, while the Muslim population lives on 200 islands. “Hotels change the shape of the islands and build piers; and if ever the EPA sanctions them, they prefer to pay the fines”, points out Sara Naseem, of the NGO Transparency Maldives. In the Maldives, promoters, hotel chains and tourism tycoons are the kings. With its project for the “first floating city in the world”, advertised as an “ecological solution to rising waters”, the Dutch company Dutch Docklands is seeking for the first time to reconcile the climate, tourism and social challenges of the archipelago. .
For nearly a billion euros, the “Maldives Floating City” (MFC) is dreaming of a city in its own right, on large platforms that will be moored in a 200-hectare lagoon, not far from Male. While presenting itself, with 13,000 houses at stake, as a response to the housing crisis. “People are calling us every week to invest millions in the floating city,” project director Paul van de Camp said today in his immaculate office on Male’s waterfront. But, despite the intense communication around the project, it arouses suspicion. Its details, models, studies, site and technologies, are “confidential”, according to the director.
As for the obscure Dutch company on which there is no information, it was granted the exploitation of five lagoons, some of which without acquisition costs. According to our sources, two of them have already been sold to promoters for several million dollars. Last year, a minister called the floating city a “huge scam”. “Who is Dutch Docklands? Why were there no consultations? Where are the studies done? Everything is extremely opaque, ”regrets Sara Naseem. Real ecological innovation, or real estate operation under cover of green marketing? “The construction will be completed in five years, promises Paul van de Camp. The future will judge us. »
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