Last week’s forced departure of the President of The Maldives has brought global attention to this small country. It is one of 29 small island developing states (SIDS) listed by the UN Commission on Trade and Development, though there is no official definition of a SIDS. These small countries face a range of sustainable development challenges, as I discussed in a recent article in Small States Digest. For example, many have to deal with debt and economic volatility, a particular problem for countries economically dependent on the export of a few natural resources. Energy dependency, HIV/AIDS and youth unemployment can be added to the list. While there has been some recognition of the threats from climate change to small islands, the urban growth dimension of all these issues has attracted little attention, yet is critical to the future of these places.
An “island paradise”
The Maldives captured attention when their government held an underwater Cabinet meeting, to draw attention to the existential threat posed rising sea levels. The country has a surface area of only 298 sq kms. Population in 2005 was 329,000 but it was growing at 2.5% a year. It is an archipelago of 1190 islands, some 200 of which are inhabited.
This “island paradise” has seen a strong growth in tourism, which accounts for around 75% of its earnings from exports. It was tourism that helped lift the Maldives out of the category of Least Developed Countries in January 2011, However, the country had suffered negative real GDP growth between 2005 and 2009. It had been affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that so devastated the coastal communities in parts of Sri Lanka and Indonesia. That tsunami caused $300M damage to property in the Maldives. Then came the shocks from the global economic downturn.
In economic terms the Maldives is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. That vulnerability is partly a direct consequence of the small size of the state. The tsunami and the economic crisis show how events triggered from far away, and quite beyond the control of the country, suddenly can have a devastating effect. Prices of food and energy fall into the same category. Thus food and fuel each account for about 15% of Maldives’ spending on imports. Remoteness and high transport costs also constitute severe economic disadvantages. Meanwhile, lack of critical mass makes it difficult to develop R&D or other forms of innovation.
As ever, the economic and environmental are intertwined. Exposure to natural disasters means that in SIDS agricultural output is less stable than in other developing countries. Export of goods and services is also more unstable. The economic exploitation of the environment is the essence of tourism in the Maldives, so again anything that threatens the conservation of the natural resource is a direct economic threat too. Tourism itself can be just such a threat, and so is climate change. To state the obvious, SIDS like the Maldives have a limited amount of land and are very exposed to the actions of the sea. The highest point in the islands is only 2.4 meters above sea level.
The Maldives, like many SIDS, is also undergoing an urban revolution. In 2007, its urban population totalled 112,000; over 100,000 are crammed in the capital city, Malé, which is on an island 1km by 1.7km. Landfilling is being undertaken to extend the land area into the atoll. In 1987 the city had a population of just 20,000. The urban population of the Maldives is expected to more than double by 2025. With an urban growth rate of about 5% a year, the country will go from predominantly rural to predominantly urban within a generation. Depletion of aquifers is occurring.
Tourism, urban spread, roads, fishing, effluent, sewage and solid waste – all make demands on the coast where land and marine eco-systems inter-mingle. Fish are actually the Maldives’ main natural resource, and atolls are a key natural feature. Bleaching of the coral reefs is an important ecological concern.
They also have a very small pool of professionals, not least professionals with skills in planning, environmental management and local economic development. In 2009 I met the minister responsible for planning in the Maldives. He told me that there were just four planners in the country, but two of those were retired. This contrasts markedly with the need for work on hazards mitigation and risk reduction, coastal zone management and basic town planning to cope with the growth. Instead, the country has been plunged into uncertainty, with the resignation of the President being forced by the police.