Sinking islands, rising costs: The Maldives’ race against climate change

The Maldives are the lowest lying islands on Earth, and they’re sinking — by 2050, 80% of the island nation could become uninhabitable. The deterioration of coral reefs poses a threat to the country’s biodiversity, economy, and existence.

The chain of 1,192 coral islands that make up the Republic of Maldives harbors an exceptional story of biodiversity, priceless cultural heritage, and, alarmingly, a looming climate catastrophe. The Maldivian people’s livelihoods, economy, and ancestral heritage are deeply intertwined with the ocean, yet the climate crisis is transforming once-welcoming waters into a primary threat to their way of life. As ocean warming accelerates and sea levels continue to rise, the intricate interplay of coral deterioration and coastal erosion is driving the nation toward a critical juncture. Inaction and delayed commitments are no longer an option, as the country’s efforts to fortify its coastline and protect vital marine habitats are critical to its resilience and, ultimately, its survival. 

As the lowest-lying islands in the world, the Maldives face the highest level of threat from climate change.

  • Perched gracefully in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives boast a picturesque but precarious geographical profile — with the highest point in the entire country sitting at only 2.4 meters above sea level, projections indicate catastrophic implications for this nation of islands. 

  • The 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report emphasizes that sea level rise is an unavoidable crisis, highly likely to negatively impact coastal communities and urban atoll islands. 

  • Many coastal communities are not sufficiently adapted to consequences of rising sea levels, such as flooding due to extreme weather events like cyclones, coastal erosion and salinization.

  • The islands at greatest risk of being lost to rising sea levels are not those that harbor luxury resorts, but those inhabited by local Maldivians.

  • Additionally, global trends of ocean warming have led to an increased prevalence of coral bleaching in the Maldives. The present deterioration of reef health adversely affects biodiversity and significantly accelerates the nation’s struggles with coastal erosion. 

  • This web of climate related issues threatens to permanently disrupt the way of life for thousands of people across the islands that make up the Maldives.

The capital city Malé has an elevation of only 2.3 meters above sea level at its highest point. More than 80% of the Maldives lie less than 1 meter above sea level. · Ishan Hassan, Ocean Image Bank

By 2050, 80% of the Maldives could become uninhabitable. 

  • With 47% of homes located just 100 meters off the coastline and a whisper above sea level, the looming threats of coastal erosion and wave-driven flooding are particularly ominous, with severe storm surges posing a high risk to infrastructural integrity across the islands. 

  • Fourteen islands have already had to be abandoned due to intense coastal erosion and natural disasters.

  • Coastal erosion is a growing and increasingly urgent concern for Maldivians, leading to water scarcity across the country. More than 90% of the islands in the Maldives have experienced severe erosion, with 97% of the country no longer having access to fresh groundwater. This situation forces 77% of Maldivians to rely on rain water for their drinking supply.

  • In order to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, the Maldivian government, with support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Adaptation Fund has allocated $8.9 million government funds for an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) program aimed at improving clean water access and increasing the capacity of the water supply system.

  • Land reclamation efforts date back to 1988 through the construction of raised sea walls, which strategically curb sliding soil and combat coastal erosion. 

Since 1988, sea walls have been constructed to protect shorelines against erosion and sea level rise across the Maldives. The capital Malé is completely bordered by a sea wall.

Climate change is worsening the degradation of coral reefs surrounding the Maldives, its first line of defense against coastal erosion.

  • Adding to these concerns is the deterioration of the corals that circle the atolls, which act as natural barriers to storm surge and erosion, making them less effective at holding back floods and preventing erosion. 

  • Home to nearly 300 species of reef-building corals, the Maldives’ islands nurture a diverse array of marine life.

  • Reefs offer both beauty and protection to the shores of the Maldives — their angular structure can reduce wave energy by 97% and reduce wave height by as much as 74%, acting as a natural first line of defense. 

  • Coral bleaching is foremost among them, a phenomenon that occurs in reefs around the globe — an indication of extreme stress whereby the corals expel their colorful algae and turn a ghostly white, triggered by factors such as increased ocean temperatures and pollution. 

Living coral is strong, unlike dead coral which are brittle and can easily break off during rough weather. When there is severe coral mortality, the subsequent reef degradation can lead to the height of the reef being reduced by as much as a meter, which is effectively the removal of a breakwater.
Aya Naseem
Co-Founder and Chief Research and Outreach Officer of the Maldives Coral Institute
  • In 2016, more than 70% of Maldivian reefs experienced an extreme mass-bleaching event caused by the 2016 El Niño and associated heat stress.

  • As coral health deteriorates in the Maldives, the intricate connections between climate challenges become increasingly apparent. The repercussions of declining coral reefs aren’t confined to the ocean; they reverberate through the fabric of daily life in the Maldives.

Coral bleaching is caused by rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, threatening reef ecosystems, including those in the Maldives, which are the seventh largest in the word. · The Ocean Agency, Ocean Image Bank

Advancing coral conservation will be crucial for the livelihoods of many Maldivians as the fisheries and tourism industries account for 40% of the country’s GDP.

  • Without the protection of coral reefs, coastal erosion has severe consequences for the integrity of the shoreline, infrastructure, and local industries like fishing and tourism. 

  • Fishery exports contribute significantly to the country’s revenue, with an estimated nearly 20% of Maldivian households relying on fisheries as a significant source of income. 

  • Fisheries account for 11% of total employment and 98% of the nation’s exports, and the industry is also the main source of domestic food — the Maldives has perhaps the highest per capita fish consumption in the world. 

  • Tourism, another pillar of the Maldivian economy, employs more than one-fifth of all the country’s workers and welcomes roughly 1.7 million visitors annually who are drawn to the beautiful scenery of Maldivian marine life and pristine coral ecosystems.

  • Organizations like The Maldives Coral Institute contribute to coral resilience through research and development of coral restoration and propagation techniques, raising awareness and public outreach, and promoting sustainable development with coral-friendly infrastructure.

  • The deterioration of coral reefs poses a threat to the country’s biodiversity, economy, and its very existence. In response to these escalating challenges, Maldivians are pursuing innovative solutions.

The [fishing] industry is facing major declines in baitfish, which depend on coral reefs for habitat. Coral reefs are also nursery grounds for many pelagic and reef fish species that are commercially significant [...] A number of popular dive sites are now degraded, decreasing their economic and aesthetic value.
Aya Naseem
Co-Founder and Chief Research and Outreach Officer of the Maldives Coral Institute
Fisheries account for 11% of total employment and 98% of exports in the Maldives.

The fourth largest island in the Maldives is an artificial, fully reclaimed island — Hulhumalé, dubbed the “City of Hope.” 

  • Maldivians have not given up hope for their native shores. Local activists, scientists, and residents are working towards mitigation strategies to preserve the Maldives for generations to come. 

  • Hulhumalé is an artificial island northeast of the capital, Malé, stretching 4 sq kilometers or 1.5 sq miles. 

  • Most of Maldives’ islands are situated about 3.5 feet above sea level, while Hulhumalé sits at 6.5 feet. 

  • This island was specially designed by the government with careful consideration of climate change and community development for local Maldivians. 

  • In the past, the government of the Maldives evaluated the prospect of purchasing land abroad in case the climate crisis forced the immediate relocation of its citizens. To avoid mass displacement, and fearing a future where citizens are condemned to become a nation of climate refugees, Maldivians are determined to find alternative solutions that would not require them to leave their country behind. 

  • Maldivians are exploring other creative alternatives like the Maldives Floating City, a coral-inspired, full-scale floating city developed by Dutch Docklands in joint-venture with the Government of Maldives. 

  • The community will house thousands of homes for locals while stimulating coral growth through artificial banks attached to the underside of the city. 

  • Balancing the immediate needs of the Maldives with the long-term preservation of its natural beauty and cultural richness requires a nuanced approach. By investing in sustainable construction practices, renewable energy solutions, and thoughtful community engagement, the Maldives can demonstrate that progress and environmental responsibility are not mutually exclusive.

The "City of Hope," Hulhumalé, is an artificial island built from seabed sand that serves as an extension of the capital, Malé, and is 3 feet higher than any natural island in the Maldives.

Despite the promise of these ambitious approaches, creative adaptation and mitigation come at a high cost, with more than 50% of the national budget spent on adapting to climate change

  • The Maldives is near the bottom of the global list of nations contributing to global warming, accounting for a mere 0.0035% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but is paying a high price to ensure its future. 

  • The costs of coral rehabilitation and coastal protection put the Maldives at risk of financial devastation. Preservation of the atolls is a costly pursuit — estimates show that the Maldives may need to invest $8.8 billion to assure coastline protection. 

The majority of coral restoration projects in Maldives in the past three decades are centered around resort islands, which are largely disconnected from local communities. In the past few years, however, there have been increasing efforts from [...] island communities to restore their reefs. Adequate funding and technical support are barriers that are commonly faced to implement and scale up such projects.
Aya Naseem
Co-Founder and Chief Research and Outreach Officer of the Maldives Coral Institute
  • Even without taking into account the costs of climate innovation projects, the price tag for simply maintaining the ecological integrity of the Maldives places the country at the center of loss and damage conversations. 

  • The substantial funding directed towards climate adaptation is money that doesn’t go toward similarly necessary investments in economic development aimed at recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, repairing housing infrastructure, and other vital sectors that contribute to the overall prosperity of the islands as outlined in the updated Nationally Determined Contribution of the Maldives via its Ministry of Environment. 

  • Climate mitigation efforts cannot rely on the determination of Maldivians alone. The nation will need financial support and increased access to international climate finance mechanisms to advance these initiatives and effectively avert further climate catastrophes.

For a small island developing state like the Maldives, the climate crisis is an existential battle, with its people on the frontlines. The vulnerability of this scenic paradise is a stark reminder of the urgent need for collective action to mitigate climate change. A world without the Maldives will be deprived of a unique culture and irreplaceable ecosystems. The Loss and Damage Fund is essential to ensure robust climate funding for the solutions underway in the Maldives.

Opening the door to equitable, direct access to the international finance provided by the Loss and Damage Fund is key to securing the future of the Maldives, supporting its development and ambitions to lead the global narrative on climate resilience.

Tell World Leaders to Support the Loss and Damage Fund.

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