The Maldives is racing to create new land. Why are so many people concerned?

A series of images showing the artificial islands constructed inside the Addu lagoon and trucks carrying sand dredged up from within the lagoon spread out to create new land on Addu Atoll.

The island nation is expanding its territory by dredging up sediment from the ocean floor. 

But scientists, former government officials and activists say such reclamation can harm marine ecosystems and make the country more vulnerable to rising seas.

This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

This article is also available as a pdf version.

“Sun, sand and sea.” Those are the three ingredients for tourism in the Maldives, Mohamed Shaiz’s father told him. For more than a decade, Shaiz’s family owned a successful local hotel in Addu, the Maldives’ southernmost atoll. But nearly 9 months ago, the government took away the sea.

A state-sponsored project had pulled up sediment from offshore areas and used it to extend the beach in front of the hotel by 130 metres — too far to walk for most tourists who want easy access to the ocean. Now all Shaiz sees from his hotel is a human-made desert and a slew of cancelled reservations.

A series of images showing the view in front of Mohamed Shaiz’s hotel on Addu Atoll and two deck chairs overlooking only sand.

The view in front of Mohamed Shaiz’s hotel on Addu Atoll.

The Maldives is an 820-kilometre-long chain of nearly 1,200 islands dotting the Indian Ocean. The nation has become one of the most popular luxury tourism destinations in the world because of its Instagrammable beaches and its advertising slogan: “the sunny side of life”. But the Maldives is also one of the countries most vulnerable to sea-level rise. With 80% of its land less than one metre above sea level, some scientists predict that the islands could be completely submerged by 2100.

In an effort to keep the country above water and thriving, the government is adopting a strategy used by many nations around the globe: land reclamation. The sandy stretch in front of Shaiz’s hotel is some of the newest land on the planet, dug up from the bottom of the ocean, sucked through pipes and piled along the coast to make more space.

Maldivian government officials say that the land is necessary to make room for economic development, especially as sea levels rise.

“This will be a doorstep, a job destination and an income-generating destination,” said President Mohamed Muizzu at the inauguration of a new land-reclamation project last December.

Critics are unconvinced, and say that the country has enough space to thrive. One swathe of land on a neighbouring island near Shaiz’s hotel was reclaimed in 2016. It remains undeveloped today. “Call me in five years,” Shaiz says, gesturing to the newly created desert in front of his hotel. “This land will be the same.”

A man wearing a black t-shirt and jeans stands on white sand surrounded by deckchairs and palm trees.

Mohamed Shaiz and his family own a hotel on Addu Atoll.

Mohamed Shaiz and his family own a hotel on Addu Atoll.

In addition to the disputed economics, there is serious concern about the environmental damage that land reclamation can cause. Studies in the Maldives and at other sites around the world have shown that it can harm corals and seagrass, damage natural barriers, such as sand bars, mangroves and estuaries, and destroy marine habitats. “Atolls are extremely vulnerable ecosystems,” says Bregje van Wesenbeeck, the scientific director of Deltares, a Dutch research institute for water management in Delft. “Once you start to interfere with them, you’re sort of failing them.”

Expanding territories

Aerial drone shot of the island of Gulhifalhu.

The island of Gulhifalhu lies just west of the capital, Malé. A reclamation project started in 2020 is filling in half the atoll.

The island of Gulhifalhu lies just west of the capital, Malé. A reclamation project started in 2020 is filling in half the atoll.

Dutch planners are often considered the founders of land reclamation, with a history of water engineering going back some 800 years. Over the centuries, land-forming projects have shaped some of the world’s major cities, including Singapore, London, New York and Miami. In recent decades, most of the reclaimed land has been in East Asia. In China, Shanghai has reclaimed 350 square kilometres  — more than three times the size of Paris — over the past few decades. Colombo has added 100 km2 in just 4 years, and 65 km2 of Mumbai is reclaimed. A study on twenty-first-century coastal-land reclamation found that of 135 large coastal cities with populations of more than one million people, 75% had reclaimed land1.

With projects stretching back to 1997, the Maldives is a veteran of large-scale land reclamation. Then-minister of state for environment Abdulla Naseer said in 2018 that there are an estimated 50 islands with reclaimed land in the country, although many specialists say that’s a conservative estimate.

Islands at risk: Map showing location of the Maldives within the Indian Ocean and the islands Malé, Hulhulé and Hulhumalé.

Source: Maldives Land and Survey Authority

Source: Maldives Land and Survey Authority

Land scarcity is a key factor driving reclamation projects. Although the nation’s territory covers 90,000 km2, more than 99% of it is ocean. Around half a million people live on a total land area of just 300 km2, and the country welcomes around 1.3 million tourists each year, who contribute 80% of its gross domestic product. The capital, Malé, is one of the most densely populated parts of the planet. It’s possible to walk across the entire island in 20 minutes.

A series of satellite photographs of the Maldives showing the islands Malé, Hulhumalé, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi in 1997 and in 2020 after land reclamation work has been carried out.

Images captured by LANDSAT satellites in 1997 and 2020 show the impact of reclamation projects on Malé and nearby islands.

Credit: Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory

The Maldives’ 1,200 islands are all atolls — rings of coral reef that surround lagoons. When the government decides to reclaim land, it takes sand from the lagoons using boats outfitted with suction pipes, which collect sand and coral debris from the ocean floor like giant vacuum cleaners. The boat then deposits the material in a different spot, either inside or outside the atoll, to form new land. Sometimes reclamation projects fill in the entire lagoon.

Environmental damage

Heaps of sand and debris in front of two boys riding a bike in front of an hotel surrounded by palms.

Heaps of sand and debris are piled up next to Shaiz’s hotel and behind the new patch of reclaimed land.

Heaps of sand and debris are piled up next to Shaiz’s hotel and behind the new patch of reclaimed land.

Addu Atoll, the site of Shaiz’s hotel, is about two hours south of Malé by aeroplane. Its rich coral reefs support more than 1,200 species of fish — one of the factors that led the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO to include the atoll in its World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2020.

Some of the islands are so narrow that you can almost always see water on both sides while standing in the centre. It’s a largely quiet and rural place that feels forgotten. Yet construction marches on.

The Ministry of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure announced the Addu Development Project in 2021, aiming to reclaim parts of the atoll and develop a road connection between existing islands. One of the ministry’s justifications is that it will provide extra housing. In the Maldives, land for houses is given away to eligible individuals and families. Addu City’s mayor, Ali Nizar, says that there have been more than 5,000 requests for housing since he entered office in 2021. “We need land,” he says. “There’s no other way.”

Man on a motorbike passes near road sign with reclamation project plan.

A reclamation project in Addu started in early 2023 and is adding land for housing, businesses and resorts.

A reclamation project in Addu started in early 2023 and is adding land for housing, businesses and resorts.

Because Addu has one of the few international airports in the country, the hope is also that the extra land will attract international investment. “With this huge expansion project, the transformational development of Addu City has commenced,” said former president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih after inaugurating the project in June 2023.

The project has been controversial from the start. When it was announced, Ibrahim Mohamed was sitting at his desk at the Maldives’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Malé. He instantly had concerns about how the project would affect Addu. Mohamed grew up in Addu in the 1970s, taking walks through the massive seagrass beds near his home. He remembers watching stingrays surf the waves, and marvelling at fiddler crabs along the shore.

Mohamed led the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process for land-reclamation projects. When the Addu proposal landed on his desk, he contracted an environmental consulting group called Water Solutions, headquarted in Malé, to do the review.

Aerial drone image of a ship dredging sand within the lagoon in Addu.

The environmental impact report, published in February 2022, found that “the proposed reclamation is well received by the community” and that there was “high interest to implement the project based on the potential economic benefits”. But it also concluded that “long-term irreversible negative impacts will be generated from the project” for both the environment and the community, including by destroying coral reefs and seagrass meadows and harming the fishing and tourism industries.

“It was sufficient enough for the EPA to reject the project,” Mohamed says. “But they didn’t.” In May 2022, he quit his job after 10 years at the agency.

After the report came out, the EPA pushed for changes, such as a smaller area from which the project would source sand. “We tried to change the scope because we are here to protect the environment and at the same time, help development,” says the agency’s director-general, Ibrahim Naeem. “Development has to go hand in hand with environment. It should not destroy the environment,” he says.

Once the changes were made to the proposed project, Water Solutions produced a second report to assess the environmental impacts at the end of September 2022. It found that the altered project, with increased mitigation and monitoring in place, would still have irreversible negative impacts — ranging from moderate to major — on marine plants and animals, protected and sensitive areas, tourism, fisheries and recreational activities.

The assessment calculated that the cost of the damage to coral reefs alone would be between US$340 million and $851 million.

The September 2022 report does not offer explicit recommendations. “Our role is to share the information. We just wanted to present the facts,” says Ahmed Jameel, managing director of Water Solutions and one of the authors of the report. However, he adds, the assessment was not vague in its conclusions. The findings showed clearly that the project “would have an overall negative impact”, he says.

When asked about the concerns raised in the second report, Naeem says that the findings, combined with insights he received from EPA staff members who conducted anonymous reviews of the EIA, indicated that there was “enough justification in the report to approve it in terms of social benefit”.

“Any development projects in this type of environment, especially in the marine area, will have an impact,” he says, adding that “if you do reclamation properly, and if you do it wisely, I think impacts can be minimized”.

Man in white shirt and gray trousers stands in front of a gray concrete wall with one hand in his pocket.

Ibrahim Mohamed previously worked for the Maldives’ Environmental Protection Agency.

Ibrahim Mohamed previously worked for the Maldives’ Environmental Protection Agency.

Two workmen in an orange suit sit under a green umbrella on a beach near a digger.

The construction company Van Oord is performing the reclamation work for the Addu Atoll project.

The construction company Van Oord is performing the reclamation work for the Addu Atoll project.

The Dutch company responsible for doing the construction on the project, Van Oord, told Nature that environmental management for the project is overseen by the EPA and that it is working with the agency and local specialists to minimize the environmental impacts. Van Oord said it prepared a comprehensive environmental management plan “based on the mitigation measures mandated in the EIA and in compliance with international guidelines”. As part of its efforts, the company relocated coral and seagrass, and added silt screens to limit how much sediment would flow beyond the reclamation zone and affect other areas.

Van Oord, which is based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, told Nature that “all the predicted impacts have been effectively managed by implementing a series of mitigation measures”.

Photo of an unfinished and unoccupied house with palms on the background.

A new house on Hulhumeedhoo island, to the northeast of Addu City, remains unfinished and unoccupied.

A new house on Hulhumeedhoo island, to the northeast of Addu City, remains unfinished and unoccupied.

In October 2022, the EPA approved the project. But critics say the environmental costs of the reclamation are too high.

“I think their efforts are not worth the amount of destruction and the irreversible damage,” says Mohamed. “It can never be compensated properly.”

Today, the land in front of Shaiz’s hotel is the result of that decision. Yet if you speak to people on Addu, many say that land is not what they need right now; they need jobs. Much of Addu is filled with empty, unfinished homes because individuals don’t have the income or resources to build houses on their free land.

“Fifty per cent [of our land] is abandoned or empty,” says Addu’s former deputy mayor, Abdullah Thoyyib, who served the city before this reclamation project took place. “We need economic benefits and job opportunities, but that’s not happening.”

Reefs at risk

Arial drone shot of yellow crane working near sea shore.

Reclamation projects in the Maldives can fill the water with sediment, threatening coral reefs.

Reclamation projects in the Maldives can fill the water with sediment, threatening coral reefs.

Sitting in a resort in Addu City, Nisal Musthag places a map of Addu’s main diving spots on the table. Musthag leads diving trips for one of the two active resorts in the atoll, and he has seen some of the damage that follows reclamation projects. He points at one of the four channels between the island’s lagoon and the ocean. “This is like a cemetery now,” he says.

Musthag does three to four dives a day, six days a week. Since the most-recent reclamation, there are at least five sites he no longer takes guests to. “There are people who come back every year to dive, and this year they were like, hey, what’s happening?”

A series of photos showing a man standing on a beach in low water with crossed hands and a map of diving spots on the island.

Nisal Musthag leads diving trips in Addu, but has stopped taking tourists to spots where coral was damaged by reclamation projects.

The impacts of reclamation on coral health are one of researchers’ main concerns. Some reefs die when sediment is dumped on them to create new land. But even corals that escape direct damage can be harmed because the construction work creates clouds of sediment that spread out and settle on more distant reefs. Robbed of light and nutrients, these corals can struggle to survive. The damage to reefs not only harms the ecosystem but can also leave the islands vulnerable to storms and sea-level rise, say scientists.

To reduce damage to corals during the work at Addu, the EIA required that at least 10% of existing corals be relocated outside the reclamation footprints. Van Oord says it has moved 73,000 corals to 9 recipient sites identified in conjunction with the EPA. The firm says that it “certainly surpassed the EIA requirement”.

Saleem Rasheed is one of several local divers who helped to relocate the corals. He has been monitoring them for the past year. One species, blue coral (Heliopora coerulea), which was moved from the outside of the atoll to the inside, died completely. “We moved 80 colonies,” says Rasheed. “They survived one week and died entirely after six months.”

“We need land. There’s no other way.”

Ali Nizar, Addu City’s mayor, supports the island’s reclamation projects.

A man in a white shirt and blue jeans sit in a room on a pink chair near a red and green flag of Maldives below an island photo.
A woman with dark hair stands in front of a red wall in a blue dress with crossed hands.

Fathimath Saaira, social-justice advocate in Addu.

Fathimath Saaira, social-justice advocate in Addu.

“I worry that our livelihood is being stolen from us. Our nature is being snatched away.”

Fathimath Saaira is a social-justice advocate in Addu who opposes the reclamation there.

But the rest of the species have shown resilience. Three months after relocation, they were struggling, but now, Rasheed says, they are alive and well.

Researchers have found that coral relocation can work if colonies are moved to areas with similar conditions that are protected from waves. A 2017 study in Hawaii, for example, showed that relocated corals were thriving a decade after they were moved2. One study on coral restoration and relocation in the Maldives measured the survival rate of 242 coral fragments 12 months after they had been moved3. The authors found a 70% survival rate, which they concluded was a promising result.

A series of photos showing a small plant standing in the lagoon's water and grey birds flying over a sea rock wall.

A solitary mangrove tree grows near newly reclaimed land in northeast Addu.

A grey heron joins others on a new sea wall built in Addu.

But coral health is only one concern for researchers studying the effects of reclamation. Mangroves, seagrass beds and coastal ecosystems can also be in harm’s way, say scientists.

Water Solutions’ second report about the Addu project, for example, projected that the reclamation process would bury about 98 hectares of seagrass meadow in the atoll’s lagoon, at an estimated economic cost of more than $3.7 million a year.

Uncertain future

Coral debris makes up much of the reclaimed land not far from Shaiz’s hotel, a sea wall stretches.

Coral debris makes up much of the reclaimed land.

Coral debris makes up much of the reclaimed land.

Not far from Shaiz’s hotel, a sea wall stretches towards the horizon, protecting a new swathe of land made of sand and coral debris. Coastal protection efforts such as the sea wall — and the changes wrought by reclamation — could have long-lasting effects on the processes that keep the islands from eroding, say researchers.

Like other atolls, the Maldivian islands evolve with the seasons, with monsoons moving sand around them. Between December and February, the winds transport sand from the northeast to the southwest. Between June and August, the pattern reverses.

“In a natural island, you will see seasonally the sand shifting with the waves and the currents,” says Mohamed. But reclamation can impede this process, he adds, by taking sand and coral debris from some locations through dredging — leaving a deficit in its wake — and depositing it where natural flows wouldn’t. Some projects add another complication by building hard barriers, such as sea walls, to protect the land, because they can stop the natural flow of sediments.

“Ecosystems can adapt if we allow them to,” says van Wesenbeeck at Deltares. “By interfering, you will kill the whole system in the end.”

Not only does this change how the island naturally maintains itself, but it can also draw development to places that are at a high risk of a storm surge or erosion, say some researchers.

“Islands can’t occur anywhere,” says Virginie Duvat, a coastal geographer at La Rochelle University in France, who has studied the effects of land reclamation in the Maldives. “If you put an island where there was naturally no island, you create vulnerable land and you will necessarily have to build strong engineered structures, breakwaters and sea walls,” she says.

A series of photos showing sand and debris black bags piled up in two rows to make a wall in the sea and aerial drone shot of the industrial island of Thilafushi.

A reclamation projection near Malé.

Thilafushi is an industrial island near Malé that hosts one of the country’s large rubbish dumps. New land is extending the island westward.

In a 2019 study4, Duvat and Alexandre Magnan, a geographer at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations — Sciences Po in Paris, assessed the scale of coastal changes that humans had made to 107 inhabited islands in the Maldives between 2004–06 and 2014–16. On almost half the islands, the researchers found significant degradation in the reefs’ abilities to weaken waves and provide natural sources of sediments. One-fifth of the islands had almost entirely or entirely “lost their natural capacity to respond and adjust to ocean climate-related pressures”, the researchers say.

Altered islands: Results of survey of islands in the Maldives showing the level of human disturbance in 2004-06 and 2014-16.

Source: Ref. 4

Source: Ref. 4

“It means that a decision you have taken one day to rely on reclaimed land will necessarily cause you to invest more money,” says Duvat. “You are locked into the engineered path for decades and decades and potentially the rest of the century.”

“If you build a levee, people will think they’re safe,” says van Wesenbeeck. “But is it wise to destroy environmental assets to create investment in an area that’s one of the most vulnerable in the world for climate change?”

The city of hope