Environmental NGO Ecocare has expressed concern that government proposals for an airport on Kulhudhuffushi island will result in the destruction of environmentally sensitive wetland areas.
“Though the constitution it self calls for sustainable development, it is sad and absurd when politicians care less about the vulnerability of Maldives and of its ecological diversity,” read an Ecocare press release.
Minister of State for Transport and Communication Mohamed Ibrahim today admitted that, should the proposed plan go ahead, there are few options but to encroach upon the island’s only remaining mangrove.
“We don’t have the details, but the new government plans to build an airport. We have prepared concept and have shared with the atoll council and the island council, and we are awaiting their comments,” said Ibrahim.
Ecocare stated that official enquiries into the specifics of the development had yet to yield any responses.
The group pointed out that – following the complete reclamation of the island’s southern mangrove for the construction of housing -the northern mangrove had been designated to be an environmentally protected zone.
Marine biologist with local environmental consultancy Seamarc, Sylvia Jagerroos, has explained the importance of such wetlands, describing them as “one of the most threatened ecosystems on earth”.
“Mangrove support the seabed meaning they prevent erosion on beachline and also enhance protection of the island in case of storm and higher sea levels,” she said.
“They support a nursery for fish and marine fauna and aid and the reef and seagrass in the food chain. The mangrove mud flats are also very important in the turnover of minerals and recycling.
Ecocare have also raised fears that the government plans to abrogate its constitutional responsibility to protect the environment as long as the proposed plans are termed ‘development’.
“Ecocare does not believe that this is a development proposal – this is just to honour a campaign pledge…it seems that he [President Abdulla Yameen] has asked authorities to get all of these promises done in 25 months,” said Ecocare’s Maeed M. Zahir.
State minister, Ibrahim, also referred to President Yameen’s August campaign pledge, in which he had suggested that the recently developed Hanimaadhoo airport – within the same area – was not enough for Kulhudhuffushi’s development.
At just just 16.6 km – or a thirty minute dhoni ride – from the new airport, Ecocare’s statement declared: “we cannot find reason whatsoever for the construction of an Airport in the Island of HDh. Kulhudhuffushi”.
Ibrahim declined to comment on the need for an additional regional airport.
Ecocare’s Zahir suggested that most of Kulhudhuffushi’s residents were against the development, arguing that support for the proposal came largely from “party cadres” of President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives.
“[Ecocare] has been made aware that there is a growing population of younger more environmentally sound locals who are opposing the idea of an airport,” Ecocare stated.
In contrast, however, Kulhudhuffushi North MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa explained that a strong desire for economic development, alongside the government’s failure to promote the environmental case for preserving the wetlands, had resulted in strong local support for the plan.
“There are many many people who want the airport…My [parliamentary] election is a month ahead – my priority is to all people. Some of the people, they want to have the airport, so how can I comment against the airport,” said the opposition MP.
Asked about the potential for reclamation of the mangrove, Ghafoor suggested that economic imperatives would outweigh environmental.
“People are looking for the jobs and people are looking for better options,” he said. “Their concern is the airport so I am am also willing to have the airport.”
Ecocare’s Zahir suggested, however, aviation regulations make the development of a second airport in the region untenable, arguing that local development would be better served by improvements to the ferry network.
Ghafoor argued that, without significant government efforts to maintain the area, the mangroves were currently acting as breeding grounds for mosquitoes – furthering local indifference to the wetlands’ fate.
“So far, the government hasn’t brought [environmental importance] to public notice – through this muddy land, a lot of mosquitoes are coming. The government is not providing control and these things so people are suffering – when there is low tide, there is a lot of smell, due to the heat and all.”
The Maldivian Democratic Party MP suggested that a newly developed airport may only require the reclamation of 10-15 percent of the mangrove.
“Without my people surviving, how can my concern be on the environment?”