The Environment Protection Agency rejected a proposed expansion of the Maafaru airport runway on Saturday after an environment impact assessment warned of irreversible damage and loss of vegetation.
The aim of accommodating Boeing 777 twin-jet was “not a valid justification when compared to the long-term environmental and socio-economic negative impacts that would arise from this project,” the EPA concluded, listing 11 reasons for its decision.
Landing of large aircraft was expected to be minimal and reclamation of land for runway expansion would cause “permanent loss of a large area of Maafaru lagoon, affecting the surrounding coral reef ecosystem.” The proposed sand burrow site was a turtle grazing area with a rich seagrass bed home to juvenile marine life, it added, whilst dredging the inner lagoon was likely to cause beach erosion and lead to loss of turtle nesting sites.
An estimated 22,000 trees, a major portion of the island’s vegetation, was also expected to be affected by the airport expansion footprint. If compensation plots were to be allocated from the other end of the island for buildings in the expansion area, “the last remaining mature vegetation on the island would also be destroyed and Maafaru would be left barren of its original mature vegetation.”
The EPA, which functions as a quasi-independent agency under the environment ministry, approves projects based on environment impact assessment reports prepared by private consultants.
In the wake of the decision, MP Ahmed Haroon from the Maldivian Democratic Party, who represents the constituency in Noonu atoll, called on the EPA not to obstruct development.
“Sand mining from N. Maafaru lagoon couldn’t be stopped. The environment is destroyed when atolls are being developed. [But] reclaiming lagoons to make resorts near Malé is OK,” the ruling party lawmaker tweeted, referring to the reclamation of the Emboodhoo lagoon southwest of Malé and the longstanding disparity between the capital and outer atolls.
The Maafaru airport was described as a “gift” from the United Arab Emirates, which financed the project with a US$60 million grant from the Abu Dhabi Fund after a member of the UAE royal family purchased the nearby Cheval Blanc Randheli resort.
In April, a photo of a turtle laying eggs on the new airstrip went viral and caught the attention of international media. As most turtles return to the same beach where they were hatched, turtles continued to come ashore for nesting despite the construction of the airport.
A video of Maafaru airport officials guiding a turtle back to the sea was widely shared on Sunday.