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The sand, wealth and curse of the Maldives
 | Business Top stories

The sand, wealth and curse of the Maldives

All you have to do is dip your head a few centimetres, when the water does not reach your waist, to see them bathed in light: thousands of corals, yellow, green, blue or purple, with multiple patterns, labyrinths in which one can only get lost. Around the reef, the colors also compete in beauty, between the turquoise of the sea, the azure of the sky, the white of the beach and the green of the luxuriant vegetation which submerges the thin strip of sand plunging into the ocean. The island of Fulhadhoo, in the Maldives, looks like a concentrate of paradise.

The sand, wealth and curse of the Maldives
 | Business Top stories
The sand, wealth and curse of the Maldives
 | Business Top stories

In appearance only. Because at the other end of this oasis, located two hours by boat northwest of the capital, Malé, the ocean reveals a dramatically different reality: a cemetery of corals. As far as the eye can see, broken and completely white branches are strewn on the ground, covered with a thick layer of sand. “When I saw this disaster, I cried, testifies marine biologist Aya Naseem, documenting the losses with her camera. There were at least a hundred species of coral here, some of them very resilient, which had survived multiple bleaching episodes linked to global warming, including that of 2016”continues the co-founder and vice-president of the Maldives Coral Institute.

She takes off her snorkel and points out the culprit: the port which adjoins the area. Its construction, which began in 2019, destroyed part of the reef, some pieces of which now serve as sculptures on the island. The dredging of hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of sand into the lagoon also caused the displacement of huge amounts of sediment which settled on the surrounding seabed, suffocating the surviving corals. In this month of February 2022, backhoe loaders are storing huge rocks to consolidate the coast. Not far away, large bags of sand offer meager protection against the onslaught of the sea. Elsewhere, residents, equipped with shovels, are trying to reform the beach which the water is already swallowing up.

Sand is a vital resource in the Maldives, but its overconsumption risks leading to the loss of this jewel of the Indian Ocean. It is crucial to maintain pristine beaches, showcases of the archipelago. It is used in construction, while buildings and hotels are sprouting everywhere. Above all, it is massively used to enlarge the islands or build new ones in the name of development, a process called “land reclamation”. Millions of cubic meters of this material are thus swallowed up each year in order to support strong population growth (+15% in ten years) and unbridled tourist development (+120% over the same period). In 2019, more than 500,000 inhabitants and 1.7 million tourists shared this territory of less than 300 square kilometers.

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