Six years ago, on 26 December 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami created havoc across the Maldives, coral reefs, coastal vegetation and mangroves played a crucial role in mitigating the impacts of the tsunami, reducing the force of the deadly waves. In the island of Kendhikulhudhoo in Noonu Atoll, mangroves formed in a depression of an islet, known locally as kulhi, absorbed much of the impact of the tsunami, saving the island from destruction of property and loss of human lives. However, the mangroves in Kendhikulhudhoo are now under threat as an illegal aquaculture project is being carried out to harvest an alien species of sea cucumber.
Bluepeace first received the information about the illegal aquaculture project in early 2009 and raised concern with the relevant government authorities. The issue was also covered by Minivan News. A similar illegal aquaculture project being conducted in Maalhendhoo, an inhabited island located near Kendhikulhudhoo, was exposed by local photographer Ali Nishan (Millzero) on his blog.
We have received information from our sources in Kendhikulhudhoo that the illegal aquaculture project has reached an appalling stage with modification of the structure of the mangroves through extensive excavation. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed to Bluepeace that to this date no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been submitted to EPA for approval to conduct an aquaculture project in Kendhikulhudhoo or Maalhendhoo.
In 2007, Bluepeace published an article on its website stressing the importance of mangrove ecosystems in the Maldives, and the role they play in mitigating the impacts of natural disasters. We also noted several mangroves were under threat while some mangroves were destroyed by reclamation for tourism, housing, agriculture and other commercial purposes.
Mangrove areas are highly productive ecosystems contributing to the food chains of atoll islands. They are also important to the atoll ecosystems, as they filter out silt, nutrients and sand that would otherwise go out to the house reef around the islands suffocating corals and encouraging algal growth.
Most of the native plants in the Maldives, including the plants that grow on the coastal vegetation belt around islands, are very salt tolerant. This was quite visible in the 2004 Asia’s tsunami disaster, most of the native plants survived leaving dead all the introduced and naturalized plants in tsunami-affected islands.
Mangroves with hanging long branches reaching into sand and below the surface of water absorb the shock of tsunamis. Behind mangrove trees is a second layer of taller native plants, which slow down the waves. Mangrove roots with aerial roots and salt-filtering tap roots not only provide support in uneven soils but hold up currents and storms.
Mangroves depressions or Kulhi, protect coastline from erosion and provide a breeding ground for crustaceans and fish. Milk fish is the common fish found in fresh water dominated mangroves swamps, on which the local population depends on as a staple food when the sea is rough and tuna and other pelagic fish are scare. Harvesting and managing of milk fish in the mangroves is done traditionally by the island community as whole.
In Kendhikulhudhoo, the mangroves have been traditionally regarded as a vital source of livelihood. In certain periods of the year, based on nakaiy – the traditional Maldivian calendar used for predicting weather – the community cuts an opening to the sea from the mangroves on rainy days, allowing saltwater to enter. Along with sea water, milk fish enters the mangroves. The opening to the sea is closed after a few days. The community feeds on the milk fish when the sea is rough or when tuna and other pelagic fish are scarce. In the past, milk fish was harvested for traditional feasts and ceremonies such as Maulood as well. After the tsunami, the people of Kendhikulhudhoo said it was a ‘safe island’ because the mangroves protected the island from the wrath of the destructive waves.
Mangrove crabs that are found in mangrove swamps are a vital part of the mangrove ecology, influencing both nutrient cycling and forest structure by flow of water through crab holes. The rich mangrove ecosystems are now under threat in several islands of the Maldives through the illegal harvest of alien species of sea cucumber, posing a threat to other organisms that use the mangroves as a habitat. The illegal aquaculture projects are accompanied by modifications to the structure of mangroves through excavation or reclamation.
In a report Vulnerability and Adaptation of Ecologically Sensitive Mangrove Habitats to the Changing Climate published by National Institute of Oceanography, Dona Paula, Goa, India and authored by T. G. Jagtap, V. A. Kulkarni, X. N. Verlekar, the significance of atoll mangrove ecosystems is highlighted.
“Loss of mangroves and similar habitats aggravate the fury of natural calamities”, the authors have argued, and noted that reclamation of mangroves has resulted in severe erosion at a number of islands from Maldives.
“Irrespective of Sea Level Rise (IPCC, 2001) or sea level chop (Morner et al., 2003), Maldives islands are likely to be under severe threat of flooding due to constantly increasing human pressure. Conservation and restoration of various Ecologically Sensitive Marine Habitats would not only enhance the productivity but greatly benefit in mitigation adverse impacts of natural as well as human created hazards,” the report concludes.
After the tsunami, international aid agencies poured thousands of dollars for disaster preparedness programmes in the Maldives. The programmes, conducted in collaboration with government agencies, have not spared vital mangrove ecosystems – an essential protective shield against tsunamis, storm surges, tidal waves and climate change – from destruction.
Adams, D., 1988. Plant life. In: Paul A. Webb. Maldives people and environment . Identification. Report No. RAS/79/123. Rome: FAO. 40p.
Maldives: State of the Environment 2002 ; 3.5 Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity
Untawale, A.G. and T.G. Jagtap, 1991. Scientific report on status of atoll mangroves from the republic of Maldives. Unpublished manuscript. National Institute of Oceanography. India. Goa.
T. G. Jagtap, V. A. Kulkarni, X. N. Verlekar., 2008. Vulnerability and Adaptation of Ecologically Sensitive Mangrove Habitats to the Changing Climate. National Institute of Oceanography, India, Goa.
A. Shazra, M. Omidi, 2009. Work on illegal aquaculture project underway. Minivan News.
A. Nishan. 2010. Alien species cultivated in the Maalhendhoo mangroves. Millzero’s Blog.