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.