Environmentalists cry foul as Kulhudhuffushi airport project begins

Environmentalists cry foul as Kulhudhuffushi airport project begins
October 29 22:39 2017

Work began Saturday on a controversial airport project on the island of Kulhudhuffushi after fast-tracked environmental regulatory processes.

The state-owned Maldives Transport and Contracting Company started digging on the beach near the island’s mangroves for a “bund wall” to mark a boundary for reclamation, a company spokesman told the Maldives Independent.

But the deadline for public feedback on an Environment Impact Assessment report – which warned of lasting and irreversible damage from reclaiming the environmentally sensitive wetland area – is Tuesday, October 31.

Ibrahim Naeem, the director of the Environment Protection Agency, confirmed that the environment ministry has approved the project after considering the EIA.

Defending the rushed process, he said: “Changes to regulations allow the ministry to give express permission for urgent projects needed by the government.”

An anonymous government official told Vnews that the normal procedure was for the EPA to approve projects based on EIA reports by private consultants. But Environment Minister Thoriq Ibrahim himself pushed through the approval after disregarding hundreds of complaints, the official said.

Naeem refused to say whether the minister signed the ‘decision statement’ on the EIA: “The DS is always given by the ministry and it was given by the ministry this time, too. It could be given by anyone the minister designates.”

Echoing criticism on social media, Maeed Zahir from NGO Ecocare condemned the government’s haste to greenlight the project.

“The decision statement should be made public and the public must be told how the decision was reached,” he said.

“If the project is to go ahead, it should state the mitigation measures that would be taken. And since people use the area for a livelihood activity, it should state compensation for those people.”

The mangrove is home to endangered species and serves as a natural defence system by collecting and draining rainwater. Local women also soak coconut husk at the mangrove lake to make coir rope.

Appearing on the state broadcaster last week, Environment Minister Thoriq accused the opposition of trying to obstruct the airport project by “keeping some people in front of them” and assured that mitigating measures will be taken to minimise environmental damage.

Despite the outcry from environmental groups and the “considerable negative impacts on the environment” identified by the EIA, the environment ministry’s approval appeared to be a foregone conclusion as both the MTCC and ruling party lawmakers last week announced plans to begin reclamation work in early November.

President Abdulla Yameen will officially inaugurate the project on November 12, MPs revealed. Developing an airport on Kulhudhufushi, the main population hub in the northern atolls, was a campaign pledge Yameen made in August 2013.

Reports on public opinion suggest that many islanders want the airport even at the cost of losing the unique mangroves.

MTCC CEO Ibrahim Ziyath told the press that nine hectares of the 12-hectare wetland on the northern end of the island will be reclaimed and that six hectares will be reclaimed from the lagoon. The company’s new dredger Mahaa Jarraafu arrived in Kulhudhufushi last Wednesday.

According to the EIA, the eastern side of the island was dismissed due to space limitations and the government also rejected a nearby island as an alternative site.

Noting that an airport exists 25 minutes away on the island of Hanimadhoo, the report also advised that socio-economic benefits from the project may not outweigh the negative impacts.

“There is political will to proceed with the project along with the backing and need of a vocal majority in the island. As this is a project that has long been delayed resulting in significant community issues, it does not seem the project will be delayed any further,” the report concluded.

Photo by Hassan Ali

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