Businesses around Maldives protest electricity subsidy cut

Most shops, cafés and restaurants in the northern business hub of Haa Dhaal Kulhuduhfushi were closed in protest over electricity subsidy cuts on Sunday as anger builds among companies around the Maldives over steep rises in power bills.

Businessmen demonstrated in Addu City in the south, while others in Gaaf Dhaal Thinadhoo are preparing to boycott paying their bills, which in some cases tripled overnight when the subsidy was removed.

In Kulhuduhfushi, more than 100 shops and restaurants will be closed until 8pm Sunday in protest over “unfair electricity rates” and subsidy cuts, while more than 100 people have been protesting outside the office of electricity company Fenaka since this morning.

Shops would normally open from the early morning until 10pm.

“We will continue to raise our voice till the government is ready to listen to us,” said Adam Shareef, a member of the steering committee on electricity subsidy cuts in the island.

“We will continue our protest outside the electricity company till the government responds, but the shops will reopen tonight.”

The government has removed electricity subsidies to companies from last month onwards, while domestic households have been told to reapply for subsidies before April 9.

Businesses in Kulhuduhfushi, Addu and Thinadhoo have condemned the subsidy cuts and are also angry about the high price of electricity in the atolls compared with the capital, Male’ City.

Only a few shops were open in Kulhuduhfushi today, including the two state owned shops run by State Trading Organization and the businesses of Mohamed Zuhair, a well-known businessman in the atoll.

“I do support the cause and I think the differences in electricity prices are a gross discrimination between the peoples of the atolls and the people of Male’ City,” said Zuhair, also a member of the steering committee.

“But closing down all the shops without giving due warning to the public will not benefit them. That’s why all of my shops are open.”

Zuhair said one of his shops had previously received monthly bills of MRV 23,000 ($1,500) and these have now shot up to 60,000, while another store’s bill tripled from MVR 7,000 to MVR 21,000.

The difference in electricity prices between Male’ and the atolls is an issue of big public concern.

Prices in Haa Alif, Haa Dhaal, and Shaviyani atolls are 72 percent higher than in the capital, while those in Addu City and Fuvahmulak are up to 37 per cent higher than in Male’ city, according to figures from Fenaka Corporation, which provides electricity for most islands in the Maldives.

Mohamed Ismail, a local from Kulhuduhfushi, said: “We feel like we are second class citizens. The state is providing electricity for the islands as well as Male’.

“So why should there be any difference? Are we not worthy of being treated fairly?”.

Meanwhile a group of businessmen in Addu City in the south also protested over differences in electricity prices and the subsidy cut.

“Some businesses did not accept the electricity bills and today a number of businessmen protested outside the electricity company office,” said the mayor of Addu City, Abdulla “Sobe” Soadhig.

Businesses in Gaafu Dhaalu Thinadhoo, also in the south, have decided not to pay the electricity bill until the government reinstates subsidies or prices fall.

“We are in talks with the government to find a solution to this problem. But we cannot simply wait and hope for a government response,” said Abdulla Saneef, a Thinadhoo council member.

“The steering committee, which pretty much covers all businesses, has already decided not to pay the electricity bills.”

The government has previously said that the large distances between the Maldives’ remote islands mean that services such as electricity will inevitably be more expensive in the atolls.

The International Monetary Fund has urged the government to move its subsidies to a targeted system, rather than blanket payments.

Fenaka had not responded to queries at the time of going to press, while President’s Office spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz was unavailable for comment.

The government, presenting its 2015 budget, said that it would target electricity subsidies to the poor, while rumours have been circulating on the social media that households with air conditioning systems would not receive the domestic subsidy.

However, Mujthaba Jaleel, CEO of National Social Protection Agency (NSPA) said that “every household that applies for the subsidies will get it,” according to Haveeru.


Businesses warn of huge inflation as electricity subsidies cut

Businesses in two atolls have warned of retail prices skyrocketing after government electricity subsidy cuts took effect this month, and called for the policy to be reversed.

Companies will no longer receive government subsidies for electricity from March onwards, while domestic households must reapply for subsidies before 9 April.

Businesses in Haa Dhaal atoll Kulhudhufushi and Gaaf Dhaal atoll Thinadhoo, which act as business hubs for their surrounding atolls have created steering committees to negotiate with the government to reinstate subsidies.

“Prices will go up 50 percent in Kulhudufushi and nearby atolls. Businesses will close and ultimately it is the public that will suffer,” said Adam Shareef, a local businessman and steering committee member for businesses in Kulhuduhfushi.

The steering committees for businesses in Kulhuduhfushi and Thinadhoo also raised concerns over the differences in electricity prices between Male’ City and the atolls.

“There is a vast difference between prices of electricity in Male’ City, southern atolls and the northern atolls. If the government doesn’t reinstate subsidies for businesses we believe it is discrimination towards us,” Adam said.

Electricity prices are up to 72 percent higher in Haa Alif , Haa Dhaal, and Shaviyani atoll and up to 37 percent higher in Addu City and Fuvahmulaku than in Male’ City, according to figures from Fenaka Corporation, which provides electricity for most islands in the Maldives.

Electricity bills for the month of March have already arrived, with some local shops reporting a bill 129 per cent higher than before.

The steering committee for businesses in Thinadhoo met today and has decided to try and negotiate a “fair price” for electricity in the atolls, or a return of subsidies.

“As this is a matter related to the public, the Council of Thinadhoo will abide and help the steering committee in negotiating with the government,” said Thinadhoo Council member Saudh Ali.

The National Social Protection Agency (NSPA) , which determines who receives subsidies, had not yet responded to queries on its response at the time of going to press.

Meanwhile the Kulhuduhfushi steering committee has already sent letters to the President’s Office, Fenaka Corporation and NSPA.

Members of the Kulhuduhfushi steering committee have been receiving threatening messages to their mobile phones since the letters were sent. Adam Shareef said the letters sent by the committee included full names and mobile phone numbers of committee members.

“We demand that you stop creating conflict between the lawful government and its people disguised in the name of getting subsidies,” said the text messages forwarded by a member of the committee to Minivan News.

President Abdulla Yameen said last year at an event by Fenaka Corporation that his administration would not discriminate between the people of the atolls and the capital city.

“I’ve recently come across news media trying to prove that we differentiate or discriminate the atolls compared to the Capital. I would say such claims hold no value and such work is based on empty grounds,” he said.

The previous Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government changed the system of electricity subsidies so that they are allotted to individual households and businesses. Earlier, the state had subsidised Stelco, a state-run electricity company that serves the capital.



Saving the Kulhudhuffushi mangroves

In the mid-morning heat Latheefa Ahmed knelt thigh deep in the Kulhudhuffushi mangrove, head scarf muddy, long skirt tied beneath her buttocks as she buried coconut husks in a shallow muddy hole.

“This is the struggle we must put up for a few coins,” said the 58-year-old coir-rope weaver.

Latheefa usually leaves the coconut husks to soak in the mud for eight months. Once soft, the fibers are pounded, washed in salt water, dried in the sun, and hand woven into coir-rope or roanu, a product once famed for its strength and durability.

Roanu had been used in boat building, in the construction of homes and in the making of furniture. But now, it is mainly used as decoration in the country’s luxury resorts.

With the decline of the coir-rope industry and the move away from traditional ways of life, the majority of Kulhudhuffushi islanders see little use to the mangrove. The vast area is now used as a waste dump and islanders have proposed dredging the site for airport development or to give out plots of land.

The plight of the Kulhudhuffushi wetlands is indicative of lack of awareness of the essential eco services mangroves provide, from acting as habitats to birds and nurseries to fish, stabilising water tables, and enriching soil for agriculture, to protecting coast lines from tidal surges.

The neglect of mangrove ecosystems seems surprising as the Maldivian economy depends heavily on tourism, an industry that thrives on rich biodiversity.

Environmentalists have called for the introduction of new economic activities in mangroves such as preservation for local tourism or harvesting seafood on a commercial scale.

Asset or dump?

Executive Director of environmental NGO Bluepeace Ali Rilwan says mangroves are only second in biodiversity richness to coral reefs in the Maldives. Mangroves and wetlands act as carbon sinkholes, capturing twice the amount of carbon dioxide as other ecosystems, he said.

Lamenting the lack of research on Maldivian mangroves, Rilwan said atoll mangroves are different to those on the continental shelf as they exist in small patches on islands and boast a different variety of vegetation and wildlife.

Supporters of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) have proposed the Kulhudhuffushi mangrove be filled in and developed into the airport promised by President Abdulla Yameen during the 2013 presidential elections.

Ali Hussein, a 50-year-old boat captain, said an airport was necessary to relieve high levels of unemployment on the island – the most populous in the North.

“There is no use to the mangrove. An airport will provide jobs. The only available jobs on the island right now are as cashiers at shops. At the Hanimadhoo airport, all the jobs go to people from Hanimaadhoo. They don’t hire graduates from Kulhudhuffishi,” he said.

Taxi driver Ahmed Nizar said Kulhudhuffushi islanders now pay MVR1500 (US$100) for a boat to Hanimadhoo, which is equivalent to a one-way air ticket from Hanimadhoo to Malé.

“When PPM asked us how can they get a majority in Kulhudhuffushi, we told them build us an airport. They agreed. Then I personally drew the pictures of the airport that you see on the walls of houses now,” he said proudly.

Those who oppose the venture — pointing out the airport 25 minutes away in Hanimaadhoo — propose the mangrove be filled in to give out plots of land for housing to ease population pressure.

No place for birds, turtles

However, for Kulhudhuffushi Councilor Mohamed Aiman, the mangrove is the “most important asset the island has”.

The council would not obstruct airport development on the island, Aiman said. But he believes the mangrove must be preserved for guesthouse tourism. Kulhudhuffushi lacks sandy beaches, and the mangrove is the only remaining site of untouched natural beauty, he said.

Local tourism would revive the coir-rope industry as well, Aiman said.

“When guests come to islands they would want to experience the culture and traditions of the island. This will have a positive effect on coir-rope making and haalu folhi [sweet crepe] production,” he said.

Bluepeace’s Rilwan blames the lack of awareness on the lack of research into mangroves, and said the biodiversity of mangroves must be documented for better conservation.

He has called for the introduction of new economic activities in mangroves such as the harvest of mud crabs to increase the economic value of the area.

Meanwhile, Director General at the Environmental Protection Authority, Ibrahim Naeem says Maldivians must reconsider their approach to development.

“Land is being reclaimed, mangroves filled in, reefs dynamited, for airports, for houses, for harbors without any thought to their environmental impacts. Large swathes of land have been reclaimed from the sea in several islands, but there is no demand for these lands. We have to consider what we are doing. We are destroying the very ecosystems tourism is dependent on,” he said.

“Islands and sandbanks are being leased out for economic activity. There are no sandbanks for the birds or the turtles. When we talk of sustaining tourism, we have to think about sustaining our biodiversity, protecting all of our living creatures.”

This article is part of an environmental journalism project supported by Banyan Tree Maldives.

Related to this story

Precious mangrove under threat as government plans airport in Kulhudhuffushi

Kulhudhuffushi airport unconstitutional and unfeasible, says Ecocare


Nine hospitalised in ferry accident in Kumundhoo

Nine people have been hospitalised after a ferry ran onto the reef in Haa Dhaal atoll Kumundhoo Island on Saturday.

According to the Maldives Police Services, the ferry had been traveling from Haa Dhaal atoll Kulhudhuffushi Island and was attempting to enter Kumundhoo’s harbor when it collided with the island’s reef.

Women and children were aboard the ferry and several had to receive medical care for injuries while nine individuals had to be taken to Kulhudhuffushi’s Regional Hospital for treatment.

The Maldives National Defense Forces (MNDF), the police and islanders are now attempting to sink the boat.

Meanwhile, the Meteorology Department has warned of strong winds, rough seas and tidal surges with the southwest monsoon in full swing. The government has urged boats to take extra caution.


Kulhudhuffushi protests over “comatose” regional health service

Over 300 islanders staged a protest on Saturday on northern Haa Dhaal Kulhudhuffushi Island over deteriorating regional health services.

Protesters called for Health Minister Dr Mariyam Shakeela’s resignation outside the Kulhudhuffushi Regional Hospital, claiming services have deteriorated to “conditions never seen before in recent history.”

Kulhudhuffushi Island Council President Ali Mohamed said the hospital served over 60,000 people in the region, but lacked doctors and equipment.

Following the protest, doctors at the hospital refused to work today claiming they lacked an environment conducive for work. However, they resumed work at 10:30 am after the Kulhudhuffushi Island Council and Haa Dhaal Atoll Council intervened.

Meanwhile, the Haa Dhaal Atoll Council issued a statement on Thursday condemning “comatose” health care service at the hospital and warned it will hold serial protests until grievances are addressed.

In recent weeks, a woman had to be flown to Malé when doctors could not sew up an episiotomy following labor, an infant suffered damages to the head during a caesarean, and a child was stillborn despite routine checkups, the council claimed.

The Kulhudhuffushi regional hospital has not had a physician for seven months, and has only one gynecologist. Three gynecologists are needed to serve the northern atoll’s population, the council said.

The council also highlighted a severe lack of facilities on the island. The hospital has a dentist, but the dental chair has been broken for two years and three years have passed since the x-ray machine broke down, the council said.

Further, lack of antibiotic discs for culture and thyroid tests and lack of laboratory chemicals have hampered the hospital’s ability to conduct medical tests, the council said.

Healthcare infrastructure is dilapidated, surtains are old and hospital bedding is torn, the council said.

The state had only allocated MVR 1200 (US$ 77.8) for cleaning supplies for the year. When the funds are divided among the 13 islands, each health center receives MVR 7.69 per month (US$ 0.5) or enough to buy two bars of soap every month, the council said.

“The council calls on the Ministry of Health and all relevant authorities to recruit two more gynecologists, a physician, a cardiologist, ultra sound scanning machine, an x-ray machine, 4 ECD machines, two fetal Doppler and adequate supplies for and facilities in the twelve health centers in Haa Dhaal Atoll,” the statement read.

The council also claimed Shakeela had not failed to respond to repeated requests for a meeting.

In response, Shakeela told regional newspaper Kulhudhuffushi Online work is underway to improve regional health facilities and said the ministry is recruiting doctors to staff regional hospitals.

The Health Ministry is also in the process of purchasing a new x-ray machine and laboratory equipment for the Kulhudhuffushi hospital, she said. But the process will take time, as equipment is imported from abroad, she added.

The government in May announced it is seeking 225 additional doctors, and said it will place 91 medial officers in health centers across the country.

The Health Ministry has been under fire in recent weeks following a series of health scares.

On June 3, councilors of southern Fuvahmulah Island held a press conference blasting Shakeela for “worsening conditions” at the hospital.

Councilors alleged negligence in a series of medical incidents including a case of stillbirth and the death of a soldier on the island.

In February, the Indhira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Malé transfused HIV positive blood to a patient due to an alleged technical error.


Seven arrested in Kulhudhuffushi violence

The Maldives Police Services have arrested seven individuals in connection to a fight on Kulhudhuffushi Island, Haa Dhaal atoll, on Friday night.

Three men were injured during the violence. Eyewitnesses told local newspaper Kulhudhuffushi Online that two rival groups in the island attacked each other with light bulbs and wooden planks.

The incident occurred near the island’s zone stadium at 11:30pm on June 20.

According to the police, those arrested include a 19-year-old, a 21-year-old, two 22-year-olds, two 23-years-olds and one 25-year-old.

The Haa Dhaal atoll Magistrate Court has extended the detention of those arrested seven days.


Kulhudhuffushi airport may displace 130 households

An estimated 130 households may have to relocate for the construction of an airport on northern Kulhudhuffushi Island.

Blueprints shared with the Kulhudhffushi Island Council show 80 plots of land will be seized for construction. But Council President Ali Mohamed said they expect to relocate an additional 50 households, as buildings cannot be constructed to heights desired by homeowners in plots adjacent to the airport.

Establishing an airport on the most populous island in the north was a key campaign pledge of President Abdulla Yameen, although with a regional airport on Hanimadhoo Island – just 16.5 km or a 30 minute dhoni ride from Kulhudhuffushi, critics have questioned the feasibility and economic viability of the venture.

Environmental groups have also called the project unconstitutional, as it requires the dredging of the island’s only remaining mangrove.

The site was declared protected after the island’s second mangrove was dredged in a reclamation project in 2010. The government in February amended environmental regulations to allow dredging in protected areas.

Mohamed said islanders remains divided over the project, with supporters believing it would usher in socioeconomic development while opponents have called for affordable and reliable transport links between Kulhuduffushi and Hanimadhoo.

“Regardless, the Kulhudhuffushi Council will not obstruct the government’s plans. We have cooperated with the Housing Ministry. We will pressure the government to fulfill its pledges, and we will criticize them if they don’t build it,” he said.

However, relocating 130 households would be difficult, with families already stating they would only move with comparable compensation, he said.

According to Mohamed, people have been living on these plots for 30 years, and have invested in their homes and have started businesses including shops and carpentries on their land.

“Also, these households are on plots of land that are approximately 3,000 square feet. But new plots are only 1,400 square feet,” he said.

A possible solution would be to relocate households to the 28-hectare land that was reclaimed in 2010, but such a move would disrupt existing plans for the area, he said.

The reclaimed “New Kulhudhuffushi” is to be developed into a commercial zone with an international ferry terminal, business hubs, city hotels, a mosque and a football field, Mohamed said.

The only remaining option would be to dredge the entire mangrove to make space for the displaced households, but such a move raises further environmental implications, he said.

Approximately 10,000 people are living in 1600 households in Kulhudhuffushi, Mohamed said.

The government has said four parties have expressed interest in building the Kulhudhuffushi airport. Developers will be given a contract of 25 years and will be awarded an island for resort development for 50 years in order to subsidise the airport.

Mohamed said he expects the venture to cost at least US$25 million.


Kulhudhuffushi airport unconstitutional and unfeasible, says Ecocare

Environmental NGO Ecocare Maldives has called on the government to honor and uphold the constitution with regards to the sate’s mandate to protect and preserve natural environments and to ensure development activities are ecologically balanced sustainable.

In a statement issued yesterday, the organisation said the government’s decision to reclaim a mangrove area for the development of an “economically less viable” airport on Kulhudhuffushi Island – approximately 16.6km from the Hanimaadhoo International Airport – is “dishonoring” the constitution and that it is “neither environment friendly nor economically sound”.

Article 22 of the constitution – on protection of the environment – states that the government should take necessary measures to prevent pollution, the extinction of any species, and ecological degradation when pursuing economic and social goals.

Asking the authorities to reconsider the decision, Ecocare proposed a focus on the development of a speedy sea transportation or ferry network between the two islands instead.

Minister of Transport Ameen Ibrahim has earlier confirmed that the mangrove will fall into the dredging area for building the airport, though he was unsure whether it would be the whole mangrove or just part of it.

Government accountability

Speaking to Haveeru, Minister of State for Environment Hassan Shah has said that the ministry’s policy is to refrain from obstructing the government’s development projects.

He said that environmental regulations have been amended in a way that ensures the “environment will not become challenge for development” and that the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) will have the full authority to protect the environment.

Responding to the minister’s statement, Ecocare’s Maeed M. Zahir said that the gist of the regulation was to protect such areas and the new amendment is a way of lifting what the government sees as a barrier to development.

“As for EPA, it is a government institution, it is very unlikely for EPA to stop a project that is important for the government. There should be an independent institution, such as the HRCM or CSC, mandated with the protection of environment,” he said.

Noting that previous administrations had similarly failed to protect the environment in various development projects, Maeed said that through the current system the government cannot be held properly accountable for such activity.

Environmentally sensitive areas

Established in 2009, the EPA functions under the supervision of a governing board within the Ministry of Environment and Energy. The agency has published a list of protected areas and a separate list of ‘environmentally sensitive areas’. According to the EPA, the areas listed as sensitive are not yet protected, but the agency is working towards that end.

Kulhudhuffushi has been included in the sensitive areas list – especially the mangrove area. An uninhabited island included in the list, Shaviyani atoll Farukolhu, has also been chosen for the development of a domestic airport.

According to the EPA, Farukolhu also has a number of mangroves and is a breeding island for a number of birds. The island’s bay is also frequented by sharks and rays – particularly sting rays – who come to breed in the area.

All development projects have to be approved by the Ministry of Environment through an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) which is reviewed by the EPA. While the Farukolhu project has already begun the EIA clearance process, Kuludhuffushi airport has not.

Director of EPA’s environment protection section Mohamed Mustafa said that the agency was very concerned about such issues: “Development projects should be shaped in an environment friendly way, selection of islands with such features should be avoided.”

Importance of wetlands

Environmental NGO Bluepeace said the organisation was closely monitoring the issue and will comment on it through the EPA’s assessment process.

“Wetlands are ecologically important, and they play an important role in climate change adaptation. And they protect the Islands against tidal surges just like the reefs. Here we are talking about the safety of the people living there, not protecting the island itself. This was observed during the 2004 tsunami,” said Bluepeace Executive Director Ali Rilwan.

Noting their economic benefits, Rilwan said that even today the mangrove in Kulhudhufushi was being used by locals to soak coconut husks in order to extract coir and for Kan’doo (bruguiera cylindrica).

He said that Bluepeace was currently in the process of studying wetlands, starting with four northern islands, as more information is needed for their protection.

“We still don’t know much about species that inhabit these places. They are all very different and have a rich biodiversity, there is still a lot to learn about them,” said Rilwan.

Kulhudhuffushi North constituency MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa has previously cited a failure to promote the environmental case for preserving the wetlands, and a strong desire for economic development which has resulted in popular support for the new airport among locals.


Environmental regulations amended to allow dredging for Kulhudhuffushi airport

The government of Maldives has amended environmental regulations to allow dredging in protected areas in order to facilitate the development of an airport in the protected mangrove site on Kulhudhuffushi island.

Speaking at a press conference today, Minister of Transport Ameen Ibrahim said the government would seek advice from environmental specialists to decide to dredge all or part of Kulhudhuffushi’s only remaining mangrove.

“We have to dredge the mangrove. We will determine whether it will be part or whole of the mangrove later,” he said.

Amendments to the regulations on dredging islands and lagoons will allow the government to dredge protected areas for development projects on the condition that an area with similar geographical characteristics is designated as protected.

The government must also determine if dredging in an environmentally protected area would cause flooding or damage underground fresh water aquifers – a critical water resource in inhabited islands.

Establishing an airport on the most populous island in the north was a key campaign pledge of President Abdulla Yameen, although with a regional airport on Hanimadhoo Island – just 16.5 km or a 30 minute dhoni ride from Kulhudhuffushi, critics have questioned the feasibility and economic viability of the venture.

The government has said airport developers will be given a contract of 25 years and will be awarded an island for resort development for 50 years in order to subsidise the airport.

“It may not be profitable to only serve Kulhudhuffushi residents. But it will become a profitable investment when islands nearby are developed as resorts,” Ameen told the media today.

Environmental NGO Ecocare has expressed concern over the government’s plans to abrogate its constitutional responsibility to protect the environment as long as the proposed plans are termed ‘development’.

“Though the constitution itself calls for sustainable development, it is sad and absurd when politicians care less about the vulnerability of the Maldives and its ecological diversity,” Ecocare has said.

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.”