Environmental coalition urges President to stop oil exploration

Twenty NGOs have urged President Abdulla Yameen to stop plans for oil exploration in Maldivian waters, or risk the country’s economic and environmental health.

In a joint statement of concern, marine conversation NGO OceanCare’s President Sigrid Lueber warned that the oil explorations could have “severe socio-economic consequences in the fisheries and tourism sector”.

After pledging during his election campaign to begin new efforts to find oil, President Yameen’s government has claimed investor interest in the project, while a German research vessel carried out a seismic survey last August.

Speaking to Minivan News today, founder of local environmental NGO Ecocare, Maeed Zahir, said that the public does not take seriously the concerns put forward by local NGOs.

“Several people have questioned our technical expertise on oil exploration and used it as an excuse to dismiss our concerns,” said Maeed. “However, with several international NGOs speaking out against the exploration we hope it will be taken more seriously.”

The statement of concern was also sent to several members of the cabinet, including fisheries minister Dr Mohamed Shainee, tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb, economic development minister Mohamed Saeed, and environment minister Ahmed Thoriq.

President’s Office Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz said that only the president could comment on correspondence addressed personally to him, directing Minivan News to the relevant ministers for updates on the exploration project – none of whom were responding to calls at the time of publication.

The Maldives has also been included OceanCare’s silent oceans campaign. The NGO – which was granted Special Consultative Status with the UN’s Economic and Social Council in 2011 – is encouraging people to write to Adeeb urging an end to exploration.

Seismic impact

The NGO coalition’s statement of concern warned that exploration will have adverse effects on the Maldivian economy as a result of negative impacts on fisheries.

Seismic air guns – one of the most commonly used survey methods for offshore oil exploration – produce loud bursts of sound by introducing air into water at high pressure which then penetrates hundreds of kilometers into the earth’s crust.

OceanCare stated that the air guns produce a pulse of noise lasting 20 to 30 milliseconds, which is repeated an average of every 10 to 15 seconds, often for 24 hours a day.

“Three decades of controlled scientific studies leave no doubt that intense sound damages fish and impact fisheries,” said the Swiss NGO. “Ocean noise has a negative effect on at least 55 marine species.”

A recent study commissioned by the Namibian government revealed a sharp decline in catch as a result of increased seismic exploration in the Orange River Basin. The country’s tuna catch shrunk from 4,046 tons in 2011 to a mere 650 tons in 2013 after a shift in migratory routes.

(IMAGE: Championsforcetaceans.com)

Similarly, the Australian tuna industry has said the process may threaten the survival, abundance, or evolutionary development of native species or ecological communities.

Additionally, a recent study into the impacts of air guns on marine life ranked them as the second highest contributor of underwater noise caused by humans – only underwater nuclear detonations have been found to cause more.

The NGO statement also noted the adverse effects on marine biodiversity as a result of such surveys, pointing out that Maldivian tourism is heavily dependent on a healthy and diverse marine eco-system.

Tourism and fishing account for 90 percent of the Maldives’ GDP, while providing three-quarters of all employment and two thirds of foreign exchange earnings.

The government’s development plans include both a reduced reliance on tourism, as well as minimising the country’s dependence on imported fuel through the enhanced use of renewables. Imported fuel consumes around one third of the Maldives’ GDP.

Preliminary Research

Last year, the German research vessel ‘Sonne‘ – which came to the Maldives to conduct research into global warming – conducted preliminary research exploration free-of-charge on the government’s request.

While pointing out the importance of proper Environmental Impact Assessments in oil explorations, the coalition of environmental groups expressed concern that no such EIA or public consultation was undertaken prior to this research.

Speaking at the time, fisheries minister Dr Shainee said that explorations will be carried out in one of three areas which have properties suggesting the presence of oil and gas. The identified locations were located 100 miles east of the area between Laamu and Thaa atoll.

Shainee also said that the information obtained will be shared with the Maldives in the first quarter of 2015. He said that the data would not be shared with any third party, and that further explorations would follow to confirm any positive findings.

In February 2014, the Maldives National Oil Company Ltd – a subsidiary of the State Trading Organization – said it would soon begin advertising the country as a destination for oil exploration.

Speaking at the 18th Saarc Summit held last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India wishes to assist Maldives in its search for oil reserves, while cabinet members reported that oil exploration was on the agenda of the first China-Maldives joint commission on trade, held in December.

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Foreign Minister calls for greater resilience to climate change impacts

Minister of Foreign Affairs Dunya Maumoon has called on the Maldives to build individual and collective resilience to face rising seas and extreme weather events associated with climate change.

In a statement issued on Friday commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Dunya said: “Floods and rising sea levels threaten the loss of our livelihoods, our homes, our cultures and our very existence.”

“The words of scientists that have for years warned of frequent natural disasters due to climate change, are undoubtedly proving to be true.”

The Maldives must take action at home to build resilience, and continue to urge other countries to do their part to combat climate change, Dunya said.

Although the Maldives has urged the international community to reach a strong and legally binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions, President Abdulla Yameen’s administration has begun exploring for oil in the Maldives.

In October, Fisheries Minister Mohamed Shainee said a research vessel has found hydrocarbon source rock in the Maldives.

December 26 is marked in the Maldives as National Day of Unity to celebrate the collective tsunami relief effort.

“What we saw that day was the true spirit of oneness, our common history and the bonds that bind us together like no other,” Dunya said.

At a ceremony to mark the tenth anniversary of the tsunami on Thursday, Housing Minister Dr Mohamed Muizz admitted government negligence in the delays in constructing permanent housing.

Muizz said the government has now completed a majority of the 338 remaining houses for families made homeless by the tsunami. He claimed there are no families living in temporary shelters at present.

The 338 houses include 41 on Thaa Atoll Madifushi, 87 on Gaaf Alif Dhaandhoo, 50 on Gaaf Alif Nilandhoo, 76 on Gaaf Alif Vilingili and 84 on Gaaf Alif Maamendhoo.

Only 51 houses remain unfinished. These include one house on Dhaandhoo, five on Nilandhoo, 12 on Villingili, and 33 on Maamendhoo.

Muizz said the government hopes to complete all houses by the end of 2014.

The housing projects in Thaa and Gaaf Alif atolls were initially commissioned to Maldivian company Vimla and an unnamed foreign company.

The government this year handed over the projects to the Maldives National Defense Forces (MNDF), state-owned Maldives Transport and Contracting Company, the Maldives Road Development Company, and several local companies.

The government is to give these families a grant of MVR 25,000 to buy furniture as they move into their new homes.

In his speech, Muizz also claimed the opposition had obstructed the construction of the permanent housing by vandalising buildings. He did not provide additional details.

President Yameen at the National Day of Unity function urged Maldivians to control negative emotions such as anger, hatred and envy in order to work towards sustainable unity.

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STO to import oil, staples and pharmaceuticals only

State wholesaler State Trading Organization (STO) will focus solely on importing fuel, food staples and pharmaceuticals, the Economic Council has announced at a press conference today.

The move is part of the government’s decision to move STO out of the retail business in order to encourage private businesses, Economic Development Minister Mohamed Saeed said.

However, the STO has recently launched a new brand of groceries called Noofahi as well as announcing plans to expand the supermarket at the STO Trading Center in Malé.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb added that STO will be restructured and will build new fuel storage facilities, establish a shipping fleet to import oil and will take measures to increase fuel security.

Meanwhile, STO MD Adam Azim today announced a MVR1.25 reduction on a liter of petrol and diesel following a request by President Abdulla Yameen.

Adeeb at today’s press conference pledged to further decrease fuel prices and said the government is looking into ways to reduce prices on jet fuel for domestic transport

Minister of Youth Mohamed Maleeh Jamal said the “historic” reduction would address rising inflation.

The Economic Council also said a German research vessel has found hydrocarbon source rocks in the Maldives and said the government is working with a Japan’s Mitsui and Taisei, and China’s Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUCG) to upgrade the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA).

The Maldives intends to ask for a preferential trade mechanism with China following partnership in China’s maritime Silk Road.

Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad said the Economic Council will hold monthly meetings with state owned enterprises to address challenges, facilitate financing, and strengthen management.

Oil exploration

Fisheries Minister Dr Mohamed Shainee said a preliminary assessment of hydrocarbons by Germany’s Hamburg University had brought “happy signals.”

The research team will handover detailed assessment in the first quarter of 2015, he said.

Although the presence of hydrocarbon source rocks have been confirmed, further research and analysis is required to determine if there are hydrocarbon reservoirs in the Maldives and their exact locations, Shainee explained.

The inner atoll ocean basins and atoll slopes have been examined, and new 3D seismic data will provide a more complete picture of presence of hydrocarbons, he said.

The government is setting up renewable energy alternatives in Malé and Addu, but such sources can only cater to 30 percent of Maldivian energy requirements, Shainee said.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan, Indian, Norwegian, and British companies have expressed interest in assisting Maldives in oil exploration.

Approximately 30 percent of Maldives GDP is spent on fuel imports.

Airport Development

Adeeb revealed today that the Maldives is working with Japan’s Mitsui and Taisei, and China’s BUCG on a master plan for airport development.

The government intends to secure a US$600 million loan from Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and China Exim Bank for the venture.

Once loans are sanctioned, the work will be contracted out, he added. In the meantime, the government will rehabilitate the existing runway.

Economic Development Minister Mohamed Saeed noted an increase in Chinese imports to Maldives, especially in heavy machinery, and said the Economic Council is working on establishing a preferential trade mechanism.

A technical team from China is due to visit the Maldives to undertake a survey for the Malé – Hulhulé bridge in the near future, the council said.

The council also revealed that the Maldives has signed a maritime labor convention, and intends to establish an open ship registry in order to expand maritime businesses such as offshore shipping and to increase luxury cruise ship arrivals in the country.


Maldives to begin oil exploration with assistance of research vessel

A research vessel with 25 scientists on board has arrived in the Maldives to conduct oil and gas exploration research.

The German research vessel ‘Sonne‘ which came to the Maldives for different research purposes has agreed to do the oil exploration research for free, the government has said.

The scientists are expected to begin research within two days.

Speaking to media after his visit to the vessel today, Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Mohamed Shainee said the information obtained will be shared with the Maldives in the first quarter of 2015, adding that it would not be shared with any third party.

A local expert and a member of the Maldives National Defence Force will be present with the team during the survey, he said.

According to Dr Shainee it will be carried out in one of the three main areas in the country with properties indicating the presence of oil and gas – located 100 miles east of the region between Laamu and Thaa atoll.

The three dimensional seismic survey, carried out by sending sonic waves into the sea, will identify the presence of oil and gas in the region without any drilling, the minister said. It will be followed by further exploration involving drilling to confirm any positive findings, he explained.

The survey team’s own research will be about the changes in Maldives’ seas due to global warming, Haveeru has reported.

Speaking to the newspaper, the lead researcher from the University of Hamburg said a similar survey was done by the same vessel in 2007, but this new, more detailed one will complement it.

Oil exploration was an election pledge of President Abdulla Yameen and the government earlier this year said a foreign investor had already expressed interest in oil exploration.

The Maldives National Oil Company Ltd (MNOC), a subsidiary of the State Trading Organization (STO), said in February that they will soon begin advertising the country as a destination for oil exploration.

“We have contacted a Norwegian company and a German company to help us better understand the findings of the study. Based on this report, we’re hopeful of advertising the Maldives as a new destination of oil exploration,” said MNOC Managing Director Ahmed Muneez at the time.

French oil company Elf Aquitaine explored for oil and gas between 1968 and 1978, drilling three different sites. According to the MNOC, it was found at the time that the quantity available from the drilled site was insignificant and therefore uneconomical for production.

In 1991, Royal Dutch Shell initiated a second attempt at drilling an exploration well in the inner sea of the Ari Atoll.

Local environmental NGO Blue Peace has said oil drilling in the Maldives could cause environmental issues depending on the location of drilling , arguing that it “cannot coexist” with the country’s dominant tourism industry.


“Ideal” time to invest, says MNCCI as Maldives Investment Forum approaches

With additional reporting by Daniel Bosley

“The last 3 years there has been a lot of turmoil, but now is the ideal time to invest and talk about business,” suggests Ishmael Asif, Vice President  of the Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI).

In light of the upcoming Maldives Investment Forum (MIF) in Singapore, Asif told Minivan News that the Maldives can offer a secure political backdrop for any potential foreign investments.

“From the chamber, we would like to give a message to foreign investors that political tension is over and there is room for investments. Maldives always welcomes foreign investments.”

The forum – set to take place on Friday (April 25) at the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore – will aim to increase the interest of Asia-region investors, and will be the first forum of such a scale to be hosted by the Maldives in another country.

Investors will have the opportunity to submit proposals for five mega projects, including the following – whose details have been provided by the Ministry of Economic Development:

Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project (iHavan) – This project aims to capitalise on the US$18 trillion worth of goods that pass through the channel to the north of the Maldives’ northernmost atoll each year.

The project is set to include a transshipment port facility, airport development, a cruise hub, yacht marina, bunkering services, a dock yard, real estate, and conventional tourism developments.

Citing growing east-west trade between China and India, the project also proposes to take advantage of more than 30 large cities which lie within a 4000km radius of the atoll. Moreover, the South Asian Free Trade Arrangement (SAFTA) means that export processing zones established in iHavan will enjoy duty free access to 1.7 billion people in the South Asian region.

Expansion of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) Following the 2012 termination of the GMR concession agreement, the government is currently devising a new master plan for developing the country’s main international airport.

Around forty percent of the tourism industry’s bed capacity is currently situated in the same atoll as the airport, with 80 percent of tourists taking less than one hour to reach their destination from INIA. Furthermore, the government plans to increase tourist arrivals to 5 million per year during its current term.

“As such, the need to expand the airport’s capacity to cater to this additional demand and to provide value added commercial and high end retail services of highest international standards, is a key priority of the Government,” explains the forum’s website.

Hulhumale’ Phase II DevelopmentThe next stage of the development in the Maldives “first fully reclaimed, pre-planned city” will involve further reclamation to the north of the island.

Potential investors are being made aware of President Abdulla Yameen’s plans to develop the island into a ‘youth city’ with a population of 50,000, which will include a “technopolis park” to facilitate light industries.

The construction of the long-awaited bridge between Malé and Hulhumalé is planned to further open up economic opportunities in the reclaimed island city.

Relocation and expansion of the existing central portNoting that the country’s major port in Malé has reached its capacity, the MIF will hope to attract investors to assist in the relocation of the main port to the nearby industrial island of Thilafushi.

The project will include reclamation work on the island, the introduction of state-of-the-art facilities – including warehousing capacity, and marine harbour and support functions to cater to all types of vessel.

Exploration for oil and gas With oil imports accounting for 31 percent of the Maldives’ imports in 2012, the country is seeking to reduce reliance on foreign fuel with an oil and gas exploration projects, explains the event information.

Previous attempts to locate economically viable reserves were unsuccessful, though the government wishes to find investors who can undertake more extensive surveys in the country’s territory.

The proposed projects are due to be supported by the “relatively freer regulatory environment” provided by the special economic zones promised by the Yameen administration.

Creating a future for the Economy

Asif noted that the decision to hold the conference in Singapore sends a clear message to the international community that the Maldives is keen to discuss ideas with their potential partners, and to build bridges with countries they would like to work with in the future.

“It will create a better platform for Maldives when we do work in places like Singapore – it’s an ideal place to unveil something like this so we can go forward with that area.”

The operator’s of Singapore’s Changi Airport met with President Yameen last week, sparking rumours that they would provide consulting services on the development of INIA.

“Such a forum like this is organised to give a positive vibe, that we are open for foreign investment and willing to discuss [ideas],” he added.

A host of countries have already expressed their interest and are registered for the Maldives Investment Forum, President’s Office Spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz confirmed today.

“There is a lot of co-operation from business groups from other countries, like China, the US, Japan and from this area. There are a lot of participants registered on the forum,” said Muaz,

President Yameen will be leaving tomorrow afternoon to attend the forum, where he will give the keynote speech to the more than 300 investors from 15 countries who have reportedly registered to participate.

Following a presentation detailing the five projects, Tourism Minister and head of the cabinet’s Economic Council Ahmed Adeeb will give a speech, before a question and answer session regarding the proposed projects.

President Yameen’s vision for foreign investment was spelled out recently, during the inauguration of a housing project in Hulhumalé – part of the ‘youth city’ project.

“What we would like to confirm for the foreign investors who come to the Maldives is that foreign investors should feel that Maldives is your second home here,” said Yameen.

“We are going to open up the Maldives in a huge way to foreign investors. Our thirst cannot be quenched. The opportunity to foreign investors is going to be enormous.”


Maldives National Oil Company seeks assistance with oil exploration

The Maldives National Oil Company (MNOC) has revealed that it will begin advertising the country as a destination for oil exploration as early as April, local media has reported.

MNOC Managing Director Ahmed Muneez told the press yesterday that the recent release of a seismic reports – initiated in 1991 by Royal Dutch Shell – had prompted the state-owned company to seek further foreign assistance.

“We have contacted a Norwegian company and a German company to help us better understand the findings of the study. Based on this report, we’re hopeful of advertising the Maldives as a new destination of oil exploration,” Haveeru quoted Muneez as saying.

He explained that an outside company would be hired to conduct a global advertising campaign in order to market the country as an oil source.

Prior to last year’s presidential elections, both the Jumhooree Party candidate Gasim Ibrahim and – eventual victor – Progressive Party of Maldives Abdulla Yameen promised oil exploration to supplement the country’s tourism industry.

The national oil company was formed in 2003 in order to assist the government’s attempts to diversify the economy, which still relies on tourism for 70-80 percent of GDP. The company’s activities include making preparations for the country’s third attempt at oil exploration.

“The fact that two leading oil exploration companies in the world had invested in exploration drilling in the Maldives, keeps up the glimmer of hope for commercial success of oil and gas exploration in the Maldives,” explains the MNOC.

“Today, with the remarkable improvement of technology in the area of oil and exploration such as three or four dimensional seismic survey systems etc., the Maldives National Oil Company is hopeful that oil or gas can be discovered in Maldives.”

Better known for its pristine beaches and clear waters – and more recently its vulnerability to climate change and commitment to carbon neutrality – the search for oil in the Maldives predates its famous tourism industry.

Information available on the MNOC website explains that the French oil company Elf Aquitaine embarked on exploratory projects in the Maldives as early as 1968. After experimental wells were drilled in 1976, it was discovered that the deposits at the site were not economically viable.

A second attempt at exploration came fifteen years later, with Shell conducting seismic surveys and drilling an exploration well in Ari atoll. Again, current market prices meant that the project was deemed financially unappealing.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb has previously told Minivan News that Maldives’ environmental image and commitments are no obstacles to developing of an oil industry.

The Maldives is “a big nation, and places not in marine protected zones or tourism areas could be explored for oil, like in the less developed north,” he explained.

The Maldives has previously been listed by the UN as one of the world’s most oil-addicted nations,  importing US$488 million in petroleum products in 2012 – equivalent to around one fifth of GDP.