According to a landmark study by the UN, humanity needs to act rapidly to prevent catastrophic damage caused by climate change. If not enough is done, coral reefs could be nearly wiped out within a century and sea levels could rise by up to 0.87 meters, putting countries like Maldives, a coral atoll nation, at significant risk. The island nation’s unique environment and ecosystem draw in millions of visitors each year, and it is fighting to preserve that beauty for the planet’s future generations. Here, the country’s minister of environment explains what the country is doing to raise awareness on a global scale, enact more environmentally-friendly policies at home and outlines opportunities for the UAE to work alongside the Maldives to secure a better future for all
You were appointed minister of environment in November 2018. What is your vision for this role and your main priorities?
Our vision for the future is to ensure the conservation of the environment for future generations. It’s very important that we have intergenerational equity. The current Maldivians have a huge responsibility to ensure that the beautiful island nation that we have inherited from our forefathers are delivered in the same beautiful serene state to the future generations of Maldivians. If we fail to do that, future generations of Maldivians will incriminate us. The Maldives does not just belong to the current generation of Maldivians – it belongs to the future generations of everyone on the globe. So likewise, the world’s citizens have a responsibility to ensure that the Maldives remain beautiful. If for some reason we lost Maldives due to our inactions, I think that will be a huge catastrophe and people in the future will blame us, the current generation living here, and the world today. So, I think we all have a responsibility to ensure that Maldives remains beautiful and accessible to the people of the globe. Millions of people come here every year and they are not coming to see people like me. They’re coming to see what lives below the seas – the underwater gardens, beautiful fish and the colourful corals, which is like an amusement park. If we fail to maintain these beautiful habitats, it will be a huge natural resource lost forever and for everyone.
So, my main challenge is to ensure intergenerational equity among both Maldivians and global citizens. I do not want the people in the future to only be able to read about Maldives’ beauty in books. And not only does Maldives face these threats to our natural environment, we have to deal with the growing tourism development and an increasing population. We need land as well. We have viable economies that rely on our natural resources like tourism and fisheries. The reasons that we are having this negative impact has nothing to do with the Maldivians, and it has everything to do with the so-called developed world. Trillions of tonnes of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases are emitted every year into the atmosphere. That is causing global warming, environmental damage and sea level rise. The sea is also becoming warmer and that, combined with El Nino, is actually killing coral reefs.
How is your ministry is working to adapt to rising sea levels?
If coral remains healthy, then coral can grow faster than the rate at which sea level rises. In other words, if the conditions in the ocean and lagoons are ideal for coral to grow, then we have no problem. Coral can ensure our islands remain in a healthy state and prevent damage from natural forces like wind and waves. But now, what is happening is because of global warming, the sea is becoming warmer and warmer. It’s slowly boiling. This is not the ideal environment for corals to grow, so they are dying.
What can we do? This is not happening because of anything we have done. The Maldivians are not emitting any significant level of greenhouse gases. If you consider small island developing states, around 44 nations altogether, we are not contributing even one percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It’s negligible. But we have become the main victims of this, especially the lower lying coral island states. So what we are doing is making everyone aware of these issues. Every conference we go to, we talk about this. I think that’s the only thing we can do. We sometimes feel helpless, but that is not going to stop us working to survive. We do not want to be climate refugees. We do not want to leave this beautiful archipelago. We do not want to be migrants in another country. We want to ensure that Maldives remains here and that we as a nation of people survive the negative impacts of climate change. Technology is going to help us. We had to find ways and means to survive. I hope and I pray that global citizens will help cope with these negative impacts that we’re facing.
In January you were in Abu Dhabi where you signed an MOU with the UAE Environment Minister on Cooperation in the Field of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency. What are your thoughts on the importance of that agreement?
In my view, this is quite important because the UAE is one of the world’s leading hubs in terms of producing and developing alternative energy sources. It has become a centre of excellence for renewable energy. So we believe by associating with the UAE, we can benefit and learn from their experiences as well. The Zayed Future Energy Prize was launched and the purpose of this prize is very commendable because people are coming up with new ideas for producing and saving energy. A Maldives highschool won the prize in 2015. So, this is just a small example of how UAE is actually spreading the message. And it has worked. Given this fact, I believe Maldives can be highly benefited from associating and cooperating with the UAE. We can also get technical and financial assistance from the nation. Every year, we have an opportunity to attend these meetings where we meet with other people and other nations who are facing the same situation.
For Maldives, energy is very important. As much as 10 to 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product is spent on purchasing diesel or fossil fuel. Of this, nearly half of the diesel is penned for a generation of electricity. The other half is spent on transport. Our energy demand is approximately 280 megawatts every day. So, our reliance on diesel is very high today. Of this 280 megawatts of electricity, only 16 megawatts or six percent is produced from renewable sources. The remaining 94 percent is still diesel. Producing electricity from diesel is very expensive. To sell electricity to our general public, we are subsidizing nearly three rufia per litre so it is affordable.
Our government is committed to further reducing the electricity cost, so that effectively means we have to find a cheaper more affordable source to produce electricity. We see solar energy as the way forward. We get sunshine 10 to 12 hours a day. With batteries and solar panels becoming more affordable, we can incorporate it much more. We have not only to install solar capacity but also we have to upgrade our grid systems. We have no national grid as such because every island is a unique small community and each island has its mini-grid. Some are also older and need updates in which we much invest. We are hoping by the end of this year, we’ll be able to increase our solar capacity from 16 megawatts to 21 megawatts.
This will take our renewable power generation up to 7.5 percent. But within the next few years, we want to actually increase this very quickly. We want to produce 70 percent of peak load demand from solar energy. But to do that, we need huge investments. We can’t afford to allocate this much from our budget, so we are open to foreigners coming in and investing in this country in solar and other renewable energy. Our electricity companies will purchase this electricity from producers and provide more affordable electricity to the general public. However, this is currently a huge challenge for us because a) we do not have the funds and b) we have to convince the investors. This year, we have advertised to install five megawatts of electricity in the Male region. This we’re doing with the assistance of 14 donors. The World Bank is also associated and we are working with them closely. Other islands are also getting solar panels installed. We want to keep this program buoyant to meet our 70 percent renewable target. I’ve been told by technical experts we may not be able to increase beyond that because solar itself is an intermittent source of energy; even with batteries we will still need diesel or some other secure source to provide electricity
Besides renewables is another way that the UAE can invest in the Maldives to create a better future for everyone?
Gas is more environmentally friendly than burning diesel. So, yes, we open to that or any other relevant investments. We can work together with them to ensure more viable energy sources. Even at present, we are thinking about moving the Male port to Thilafushi. But we need established power there, and it is viable to have a large power plant in Thilafushi. From there, we could provide electricity to Male and Hulhumale through power connections. That would also make electricity more affordable for residents. It would be win-win. Investors will benefit from selling electricity to our public and we will benefit from the prices. Similarly, they can invest here in renewable energy like solar, wind, ocean or wave energy. The investment potential is huge. Maldives isn’t huge but it is a beautiful place that everyone would like to be associated with. It would certainly look good on an investment portfolio. We will welcome anybody to invest here and ready to receive them.