Five islands are to be destroyed for an airport project in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll, an environmental impact assessment has revealed.
The airport, partly funded by a US$4 million interest-free loan from a Maldives tycoon, will cater to a population of 7,000 people who live within a 30-minute speed-boat journey, and one resort.
The US$11 million project will destroy uninhabited islands about 140 metres east of Faresmaathodaa island, which was originally proposed as the airport site before “lack of space and scheduling difficulties” the EIA noted.
An estimated 13.6 hectares of land will be reclaimed to connect Kan’dehdhuvaa, Han’daidhvaa, Dhoonirehaa, Kaalhehuttaa and Maarehaa. The five islands are part of a chain that are famous locally because people could walk across them at low tide.
But the 394-page EIA warns of a “strong likelihood of flooding on the airport due to the elevation” which could make the airport unusable.
It also details the “significant impacts” the project will have on vegetation and marine life.
“Vegetation clearing is one of the most significant impacts where it is anticipated that roughly 14,000-16,000 trees will be removed,” says the EIA.
“This will result in a large volume of green waste that needs to be managed. In addition, coastal construction activities will involve significant adverse impacts on the marine water quality and marine life.”
The EIA was carried out by the private firm CDE Consulting.
Environmental effects include the erosion of unprotected areas, increase in wave activity, flooding, degradation of biodiversity, waste accumulation and pollution of the air and soil.
“The current design of the project leaves the beach on the oceanward side unprotected and it does not include a beach slope or an erosion buffer, making it likely to erode following reclamation.”
It also warns of habitat loss and groundwater contamination.
The EIA identifies an alternative position for the airport due to “flooding and erosion risk due to proximity of new reclamation and Faresmaathodaa” but says the government did not give the option of a second choice.
– ‘Little tsunamis’ –
The southern atolls have a history of flooding due to tropical storms.
The EIA recommendations were turned down in order to keep the airport as close to Faresmaathodaa as possible.
An environmental expert familiar with the area said it made no sense to build a new airport in the atoll, when two existing airports were almost an hour away by speedboat from Faresmaathodaa island.
“There are surges caused by long-period waves from southern Indian storms,” he told the Maldives Independent on condition of anonymity.
“In 2007 we had the latest recorded major event. The storm surges are like little tsunamis. The water level will rise above normal. This flows between the two islands and when closed it creates a bay for the water levels to rise.
“These surges occur every 10 years,” he added. “It doesn’t make sense to reclaim the area for an airport while this happens frequently.”
The report warns of storm surges of up to three metres based on 2006 UNDP statistics. It did not take into account the swell of 2007, although islanders mentioned this incident in stakeholder consultations.
– Local support-
Nasrulla Mohamed, the president of the island council, backed the project and the EIA says the project’s benefits are mainly socio-economic.
“The airport is very important,” he told the Maldives Independent. “We have to travel a lot. Our island is very dependent on fisheries, but we don’t always catch fish. The airport will allow tourism to start for us.”
Reclamation work has already started, a Regional Airports spokeswoman confirmed to the Maldives Independent.
The EIA also recommends a “no-project” option but the project comes from the government’s policy of establishing an airport with 30 minutes of each inhabited island.
Maeed Mohamed Zahir, from the environmental NGO EcoCare, said this policy was more about gaining political support.
“After reviewing the EIA report it is clear that the project information, planning and necessary background data were not fully available or decided when the study was conducted,” he told the Maldives Independent.
EcoCare called on the government “to refrain from disrupting these environmentally sensitive areas that make up the biodiversity of this country.”
“We would like to remind the government that the biodiversity sector of the Maldives contributes 71 percent of the nation’s employment, 49 percent of public revenue, 62 percent of foreign exchange and 89 percent of the GDP.
“Conserving and protecting these sites directly contributes to our very economy and existence,” Zahir added.
This would be the fourth airport in Huvadhoo Atoll, thought to be the largest atoll in the world.
Huvadhoo is divided into Gaaf Alif and Gaaf Dhaal for administrative purposes. Kooddoo airport caters for Gaaf Alif.
The atoll has seven tourist resorts.
– Environmental costs –
In 2016 environmental groups expressed concern over a government plan to build an airport on Dhigulaabadhoo, a U-shaped island located between Fiyoari and Faresmaathodaa islands on the south western tip of the atoll. The EIA does not mention this proposal.
The government has been criticised for the environmental cost of airports.
Thousands of trees were cut down and a major mangrove system was destroyed in Kulhudhuffushi, while there has been outrage over plans to destroy over 57 football fields of trees for a proposed airport project in Raa Atoll.
There are 11 airports in the Maldives, including four international ones. The 2018 budget included funding for airports in Kulhudhuffushi, Funadhoo, Nilandhoo and Maavarulu.
Construction work on Maavarulu airport in Gaaf Dhaal started in June, local media reported.
The Environmental Protection Agency says it is committed to carrying out and bearing the cost of environmental mitigation measures for the Faresmaathodaa project.