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Paper 8: Environmental Changes in the Maldives: Current Issues for Management - By Mohamed Khaleel and Simad Saeed, Ministry of Planning Human Resources and Environment, Ghazee Building Malé, Republic of Maldives


The aim of this paper is to present an overview of the current issues for environmental management in the Maldives. In the past, the lifestyle of Maldivians was very simple and had almost negligible impact on the environment. However, recent socio-economic developments and growing population have led to a marked deterioration in the environment. With a very fragile and delicate ecosystem, vulnerable to the threat of global warming and sea level rise, the need for environmental management and planning is clearly demonstrated.

In this paper particular attention is paid to the environmental problems to which the government has given priority action. Issues considered include beach erosion, coral mining, population issues, freshwater resources, waste disposal and sewage disposal.

The present environmental management structure in the country is also considered in the paper. The institutions, legislation and agendas developed for environmental management are presented along with the environmental impact assessment procedure for new development projects. As the Maldives is actively involved in bringing environmental issues to the forefront of the global political agenda, the role played by Maldives in the international arena is also briefly stated.


This paper is prepared by the Ministry of Planning, Human Resources and Environment to be presented at the Integrated Reef Resources Management Workshop, 16-20 March, 1996. In the paper, problems such as over-exploitation of marine resources and conservation of species is not considered as these areas represent the subject focus for other papers to be presented in the Workshop.

The environment of Maldives comprises a delicate and complex series of ecosystems that are unique to the tropical world and many have found it a pleasure to gaze upon. The Maldives has a rich biodiversity and the coral reef ecosystem is one of the most productive ecosystems with linkages ranging from microscopic plankton to the giant sperm whale.

The Maldives is very vulnerable as well. The very small size and virtual isolation of the islands make their ecosystems, both on land and the sea, particularly fragile. Until recently the lifestyles of Maldivians had been so simple that its impact on the environment was minimal. However, the rapid socio-economic development and fast growing population have greatly contributed to the degradation of the environment.

Current environmental issues stem in large part from the high population density which is aggregated onto relatively few islands in each atoll. The problems of a number of the more densely populated islands and some tourist resorts have reached critical levels in terms of environmental management.


2.1 Beach Erosion

The islands of the Maldives are very transient, building and eroding at a rapid rate, and thus beach erosion is a very widespread problem. Severe cases of beach erosion have been reported by 57 inhabited islands and several resort islands. In an evaluation of coastal engineering issues in the Maldives (Readshaw, 1994), it was found that causes of erosion very greatly from one location to the other and the causes identified include: loss of a source of sand; increased exposure to the incident wave climate due to historical mining of the house reef; changes in the near shore current patterns, either due to natural causes or man made changes, such as construction of coastal infrastructure; changes in the natural sediment balance; and up drift impoundment of sand behind coastal structures built without pre-filling.

Construction of groynes and other such structures helps in bringing about sand deposition and beach consolidation. However, it also often leads to further complications, especially if the constructions are improper. As a consequence of a lack of investigation of local current and wave regimes prior to construction activities, a number of breakwaters and defense structures have been damaged by normal wave and current action resulting in expensive repair and re-design.

2.2 Coral Mining

In the Maldives, living coral is exhaustively stripped from shallow reef tops of faros by miners to supply the construction industry. The problem is particularly serious in the Malé and Ari zone supplying Malé and tourist resorts where there is a considerably higher demand for construction materials. Over a six year period the volumes of coral landed in Malé rose from 7,000 to 400,000 cubic feet. Statistics are no longer kept. Mining corals reduces coastline protection against normal tide and wave-induced erosion and sand movements and increases coastal susceptibility by effectively increasing water depth. One consequence is wave set-up, thereby increasing the possibility of storm-induced erosion and flooding. At intensively mined sites, diversity and abundance of coral reef fishes are also markedly reduced, with some reef fish species commonly used as baitfish entirely absent (Dawson Shepherd et al., 1992). Brown & Dunne (1988) carried out biological surveys on mined reefs and evaluated the impacts of coral mining in the Maldives.

2.3 Dredging

Dredging is normally associated with harbour deepening, land reclamation, and mining for construction material. Harbour deepening has been ongoing since 1985 and by the end of 1995, about 45 islands had dredged entrances and harbours.

Dredging physically disturbs or removes the bottom substrate, deposits sediments on the substrate, suspends sediments in the water column, reduces light penetration, changes circulation, reduces dissolved oxygen and increases nutrient levels in the water column. Dredging also results in the direct elimination of benthic habitat in the dredged area and a reduction of associated demersal species. Many coral reef communities are sensitive to both suspended and accumulating sediments and require long time periods for recolonization (Rogers, 1990). Sediment loads also can have a major effect on the distribution of coral species and thus, the composition of the reef community.

The extent and significance of the impacts of dredging have not been properly assessed in the Maldives. Such activities may have significant impacts both locally and down current. The problem was identified as being significant by Kenchington (1985) and UNEP (1986). Engineering Geology & Tropical Coastal Management (1987) reported that discharge waters from construction sites in Malé carried out significant quantities of fines to the coastal environment and were smothering corals.

2.4 Land Reclamation

Reclamation which in the Maldives usually means the creation of new land represents a capital intensive solution to increasing the physical carrying capacity of a particular island. It results in an increased susceptibility of the island as a whole to flooding by covering the reef flat which faces the ocean. The protective value of the unmodified reef flat may be calculated in terms of its replacement by alternative means and if added to the costs of the reclamation work provides a more realistic cost/ha of such land than merely the reclamation costs alone. Such activities occur on both large and small scales and are usually associated with human population centres and as a byproduct of harbour dredging.

2.5 Population Growth, Distribution and Life Styles

The total population of the Maldives as enumerated in the 1995 census was 244,644. The annual population growth rate between 1977 and 1985 was 3.2% per annum. Between 1985 and 1990 this had increased to 3.4%, and according to the 1995 census preliminary results, the current growth rate between 1990 and 1995 has dropped to 2.75% per annum. Though the current growth rate represents a significant decrease in the rate of growth since the 1990 census, it would still result in a doubling of the population giving in excess of 400,000 people in the first decade of the next century. A failure to address this problem rapidly and directly will negate all other efforts to achieve sustainable development.

The population of the Maldives is not equally dispersed, but aggregated onto 200 of the 1,190 islands. This traditional settlement pattern automatically concentrates some human-induced environmental problems, which become unmanageable when population exceeds the carrying capacity of the islands concerned and has occurred in some rural island communities. Problems of land shortage, over-crowding, solid waste, sewage disposal, declining freshwater quality and quantity are characteristic of these islands. The rapid growth in Malé's population associated not merely with the birth rate but also with a drift from more isolated areas in search of education, health and other services has resulted in the environmental problems of Malé reaching a crisis. At present 25.7% (62,793) of the population live in Malé. Without population regulation it may be expected that similar problems will develop in other centres of attraction.

In addition to the unsustainable growth and distribution of population, the changing lifestyles are also creating environmental problems. The lifestyles of the North are being mimicked and unsustainable consumption patterns are slowly becoming a local phenomenon. Between 1982 and 1994 the number of vehicles rose from 18,103 to 55,808. The number of cars, lorries/trucks and pickups have risen from 326 to 914; 156 to 455; and 46 to 526 respectively between 1982 and 1994. A significant proportion of these vehicles are based in Malé contributing to significant compaction of the road surface and consequent reduction in natural aquifer recharge. Similar problems are emerging in other islands where the number of vehicles are growing.

2.6 Solid Waste Disposal

Solid wastes include domestic and industrial wastes of organic and inorganic origin and variable size, ranging from small tins to whole cars. A comprehensive survey of solid wastes in Malé was carried out in 1989, and a per capita generation rate of 0.32 kg/day and an average waste density of 280 kg/m3 was found (Lidkea, 1993). Waste quantities in Malé and in the Maldives will generally increase as the population increases, but will also increase on a per capita basis as the standard of living improves. Higher percentages of paper, plastic, glass and metal can be anticipated.

Disposal via dumping untreated waste results in marine pollution problems; use as landfill contaminates groundwater resources, whilst incineration results in air pollution and leaves unanswered the question of disposal of non combustible wastes and ash residues which may contain potentially toxic materials including heavy metals from marine paints, and batteries.

2.7 Sewage Disposal

Sewage poses a series of potential problems depending on the mode of disposal; discharge of raw, untreated sewage into the marine environment causes nutrient enrichment, algal blooms, deoxygenation and human health problems depending on the siting of the outfall. Such conditions adversely affect coral growth. Sewage-related problems are of concern around the densely populated islands and some tourist resorts.

2.8 Waste oil disposal

Waste machine and lubricating oils associated with small-scale machine shops present a problem in Malé; current disposal seems to be simply into the ground around the workshop concerned, resulting in contamination of groundwater supplies. Under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, reception facilities for waste oil and oil separated from bilge water has to be provided. Such facilities do not currently exist and neither do facilities for oil disposal. Recently, bins have been placed in Thilafushi for dumping waste oil.

2.9 Freshwater Availability

High density human populations affect freshwater aquifers in two ways: by increasing the volume of daily water removal, and by restricting aquifer recharge. Freshwater resources are currently critical in a number of islands - both inhabited (particularly in the northern atolls) and some resort islands.

Most groundwater assessments conducted to date have been only for Malé, and the volume of untapped groundwater resources on other islands is unknown. One of the attractions of Malé for original settlement was the extensive and deep freshwater aquifers. However, it has been progressively depleted, leading to the installation of desalination plants to supply drinking water to the residents. Calculations for Malé suggest that at the current rate of overdraw the aquifer will be exhausted in the next few years, and similar problems are likely to continue to arise in other heavily populated islands.

Changes to aquifer resources also affect the carrying capacity of the island with respect to vegetation, both natural and agricultural crops. Saltwater intrusion and salination of freshwater supplies is known to be a problem in several, islands. Poor sewage disposal has resulted in the contamination of groundwater in the past, resulting in a high incidence of cholera and shigella, with major outbreaks in 1978 and 1982.

2.10 Soil Degradation

Continuous removal of leaf litter and dumping or destruction by burning interrupts the cycle of nutrient replenishment in the soil, resulting in reduced soil fertility and hence vegetation growth rates. This problem is severe in heavily populated islands and some tourist resorts, where the remaining vegetation may also be stressed through increased salinity of groundwater aquifers.

2.11 Inadequate Environmental Database

Numerous reports have commented at length on the inadequacy of existing data sources and the need to establish a central database for information relating to all aspects of environment of the Maldives. Some reports have made recommendations concerning the nature of such a database and its establishment. Without such a database, quantification of environmental problems is difficult and identifying solutions impossible.


3.1 Institutional Structure

Under the existing government institutional framework, the key authorities involved in the protection of the environment are the National Commission for the Protection of the Environment, the Ministry of Planning, Human Resources and Environment, the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Construction and Public Works and the Ministry of Atolls Administration.

The environment sector was formally recognized as an entity within the Government in 1984, with the creation of an Environmental Affairs Division in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Social Services. During late 1988, environment was given an elevated status, being combined with the then Ministry of Planning and Development to form a new "Ministry of Planning and Environment". The rationale for this move being that environmental considerations needed to be folly and efficiently integrated into development planning within the country. In the government reorganization in 1993, the Ministry was given the additional responsibility of human resource development, and was renamed the Ministry of Planning, Human Resources and Environment, thus reflecting the Government's commitment for sustainable human development.

The Ministry of Planning, Human Resources and Environment is responsible for developing all aspects of environmental policy and enforcement of Environmental Protection and Preservation Act, 1993. The Ministry also acts as the secretariat for the National Commission for the Protection of the Environment. The Environment Section within this Ministry deals with all issues of the environment including global environmental issues. It administers and coordinates with other government offices, advises on environmental aspects and undertakes programs to raise public awareness on environmental issues. Environment Section also acts as the focal point for both national and international activities. The Environment Research Unit of the Ministry is charged with assembling the necessary environmental information required for planning and management.

The National Commission for the Protection of the Environment (NCPE), which was appointed by the President in 1989, advises the Minister of Planning, Human Resources and Environment on issues related to the responsibilities stated above. The mandate of the NCPE includes: involvement in assessment, planning and implementation of activities of the Maldives that affect the environment and activities to protect the environment, advising on tackling environmental problems, and ensuring that the environmental protection component is included in development projects. The NCPE consists of officials from various government offices. The President of the NCPE is the Minister of Planning, Human Resources and Environment.

3.2 Environmental Legislation

The Environmental Protection and Preservation Act (4/93) enacted in April 1993, established a framework upon which regulations and policies can be developed to protect and preserve the natural environment and resources for the benefit of future generations. In brief, Act 4/93 consists of:

clause 2: concerned government authorities shall provide necessary guidelines and advice;

clause 3: MPHRE is responsible for formulating policies as well as rules and regulations

clause 4: MPHRE shall identify and designate protected areas and nature reserves

clause 5: mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment for any new projects

clause 6: power to terminate developments causing significantly detrimental environmental impacts

clause 7: disposal of waste, oil and poisonous substances shall be regulated

clause 8: disposal and transboundary movements of hazardous wastes banned

clause 9: fines for damage to the environment

clause 10: compensation for environmental damage that may take place.

3.3 Local Environment Agendas

In 1989, the National Environment Action Plan was developed through a national workshop to address the planning and management needs of the country. The Action Plan contains the overall strategy of the Government in the environment sector which represents a combined approach to managing and solving existing problems and establishing the mechanisms and procedures for future sound management of the environment.

The principal aim of the National Environment Action Plan is "to help the Government of Maldives to maintain and improve the environment of the country, including the marine and ocean area contained within the Exclusive Economic Zone, and to manage the resources contained therein for the collective benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations."

In the near future a National Agenda 21 will be developed as a follow up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and Agenda 21. Work on Health and Environment Chapter has already begun and a report is expected by the end of June 1996.

3.4 Environmental Impact Assessment System

The Environmental Impact Assessment System (EIA) in the Maldives was established through the Environmental Protection and Preservation Act of Maldives (4/93), which came into effect in April, 1993. The legislation provides the basic framework for the EIA process in the country and the EIA procedures are laid out in the form of guidelines. According to article 5 (a) of the Act, an impact assessment study shall be submitted to the Ministry of Planning, Human Resources and Environment before implementing any activity that may have an impact on the environment.

Article 5 (b) states that the principles of EIA and the projects that require an EIA shall be determined by the Ministry of Planning, Human Resources and Environment. To streamline and facilitate the EIA process in the country the Ministry developed a set of guidelines outlining the procedures for EIA and these were approved by the Cabinet in December 1994.

In the Maldives, the rule setting agency that has the authority to specify rules, procedures, and standards governing the EIA process is the Ministry of Planning, Human Resources and Environment (MPHRE). MPHRE is also the responsible agency mandated to prepare the EIA or have it prepared for a proposed action. There are various licensing agencies authorized to issue an official permit to the action proponent to implement the proposed action. The main licensing agencies in the country are: Ministry of Trade and Industries; Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture; Ministry of Tourism, and Ministry of Atolls Administration.

3.5 Environmental Awareness and Education

Raising public awareness on environmental issues has been given a high priority by the Government. To accomplish sustainable development and lifestyles, environmentally sound actions at individual, household and community level need to be initiated. A number of Government agencies and NGOs have been involved in promoting environmental awareness. Wall posters, television and radio programmes are used to disseminate information on specific issues of concern. These programmes attempt to inform the public on the state of the environment within and outside the country including impacts of human activities.

Environmental education programmes have been incorporated into primary and secondary school curriculums; this has proven to be very effective. Younger generations are becoming more aware of the delicate nature of our ecosystem and its vulnerability to natural and man-made changes.

3.6 International Cooperation

The Maldives has been at the forefront of international developments in the field of environment. His Excellency President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has been instrumental in bringing the issues of climate change to the global political agenda. He raised the concerns of small island nations at the United Nations General Assembly, the Commonwealth Summit and at various other international and regional fora.

In 1989, the Maldives hosted a ministerial level meeting of small island states concerned with sea level rise. This meeting led to the formation of the Small Island Group which eventually at the Second World Climate Conference became the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

During the preparations for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the Maldives played a prominent role in modifying the language of Agenda 21 to ensure that the particular concerns of small island states were taken into consideration. In addition to participating in internationally high profile activities, the Maldives continues within the limits of finance and manpower, to play a small but important role in various ongoing international programmes and activities. The Maldives is party to several international conventions including:

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change;

Convention on Biological Diversity;

Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal;

Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer;

Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer; and International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil.

3.7 Management Issues

A major issue in environmental management is the inability to utilize existing environmental information. Innumerable studies have been undertaken to investigate environmental problems and many reports have been prepared. No archive of all these studies exists for reference and those available in country are found in different agencies. Another area of concern is the complete absence of certain environmental information. There are number of areas where scientific information is lacking and these include information on coastal processes, habitats and species.

The absence of qualified people is a major constraint in addressing current management problems. There is the need for education and training at all levels. The lack of trained manpower, equipment and institutions has hampered development of an indigenous research capability and hence slowed development of adequate environmental management and planning.

Lack of plans of action, guidelines and procedures poses great difficulty in the implementation of policies. The first Environment Action Plan was developed for 1990-1992, and preparation of a local agenda 21 is scheduled for 1996. In 1994, procedures for environmental impact assessment were developed. Work is being undertaken for the preparation of guidelines on waste management and sewage disposal. Codes of Practice need to be developed for the construction of coastal defense structures.

The country's wide spread, together with the dispersed population, results in difficulties of control and enforcement. Laws passed in Malé are enforced through Atoll Chiefs operating via individual islands chiefs leading to lengthy chains of communication and delays in response at both ends of the system. Sectoral division of responsibilities also leads to frequent duplication of effort in some areas.


Fully aware of its dependence upon the marine environment, the Maldivian society had learnt to co-exist with nature. However, with the beginning of commercial exploitation of resources and an accelerated pace of development, the environmental situation has changed considerably. Because of population growth and increasing stress on the limited resources environmental issues are today in various stages of emergence.

The Government is aware of the urgent need to manage the resources and protect the environment. The government has developed institutional framework for environmental management and environmental legislation has been passed by the Citizen's Majlis in 1993. To collate and manage information an Environment Research Unit was established in 1990.

At present, the major constraints in environmental management are the lack of trained manpower, scientific equipment and research facilities, as well as severe limitation or lack of funds.


Brown, B.E. and Dunne, R.P. (1988) The Impact of Coral Mining on Coral Reefs in the Maldives. Environmental Conservation, 15, pp. 159-165.

Dawson Shepherd, A.R., Warwick, R.M., Clarke, K.R. and Brown, B.E. (1992) An Analysis of Fish Community Responses to Coral Mining in the Maldives. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 33, pp.367-380.

Engineering Geology Ltd. & Tropical Coastal Management Consultants Ltd. (1987) Geological, geotechnical and ecological studies of selected atolls of the Republic of the Maldives. 53pp.

Kenchington, R.A. (1985) Report on the missions to the Republic of Maldives, October 1984 and February 1985. 87 pp.

Lidkea, T.R. (1993) Solid Waste Management, MPE.

Readshaw, J.S. (1994) An Evaluation of Coastal Engineering Issues and Requirements in the Republic of Maldives. Hatfield Consultants Limited.

Rogers, C.S. (1990) Responses of Coral Reefs and Reef Organisms to Sedimentation. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 62, pp. 185-202.

UNEP (1986) Environmental problems of the marine and coastal area of Maldives: National Report. UNEP 31pp.

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