UN expert: Maldives stuck between a rock and hard place


Maldives faces a potentially dystopian future because of a climate change emergency caused by wealthy nations and wealthy individuals, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to a healthy environment, David R. Boyd said today.

“Scattered like sparkling jewels across a vast swath of the Indian Ocean, the islands of Maldives are a tropical paradise. But with the highest point of land only 2.4 meters above sea level, scientific projections indicate that the Maldives could disappear completely beneath the ocean due to sea level rise,” Boyd, said in a statement at the end of his visit to Maldives.

“Long before that ultimate catastrophe, Maldives could become virtually uninhabitable due to the combined impacts of sea level rise, severe heat, floods, coastal erosion, increased frequency of extreme weather events – all with impacts on human rights, including the right to a healthy environment,” the Special Rapporteur said.

Boyd said that the most controversial environment and human rights related topic in Maldives involves land reclamation. The process of dredging sand to expand existing islands or create new islands has accelerated in recent years. The Government states that additional land is needed for housing, infrastructure and industry. Land reclamation is also depicted as a means of adapting to climate change, particularly to the threat of rising sea levels.

“The Maldives appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is untenable to do nothing to protect these extraordinarily vulnerable islands from the existential threat of rising sea levels. Yet reclamation is also highly problematic, damaging nature’s defense mechanisms, jeopardising marine biodiversity, and sabotaging the ecosystems that attract millions of tourists annually,” Boyd said.

If land reclamation could be done in a genuinely sustainable manner, with the full participation and support of local communities, it could be a valuable means of building resilience and adapting to the inevitable impacts of the climate emergency, the expert said.

The expert also examined other environmental issues with consequences for human rights, such as waste management and the heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels for electricity generation and transportation.

“Maldives has serious waste management problems, including open burning, dumping of waste, and microplastic contamination,” Boyd said. “Wherever one travels, one sees litter on streets, on beaches, in the ocean, and tangled in the roots of trees.”

Maldives’ heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels for generating electricity is expensive, contributes to air pollution, undermines the nation’s international reputation as a leading voice for climate justice, and poses a massive obstacle to achieving carbon neutrality. In recent years, fossil fuel subsidies for petrol and electricity have cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

“The Maldives need to rapidly shift from a fossil fuel-based to a renewable-based energy model in order to better protect the human rights of its population including the right to a healthy environment,” the expert said.

“In some ways, the Maldives epitomises a global economy based on the exploitation of people and nature. A burgeoning number of islands are being privatised, offering high end luxury resorts for wealthy foreigners at thousands of dollars per night, while 30 percent of the population of Maldives are migrant workers, many of whom work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions,” Boyd said. “Foreign investors reap large profits while local communities suffer the loss of ecosystems that sustain them. Unless this model changes, humanity will not achieve a just and sustainable future.”

During his visit, the Special Rapporteur met with Government officials, representatives of civil society and youth. He travelled to eight islands, visiting land reclamation sites, the waste disposal site at Thilafushi Island, and several protected areas.

A comprehensive report on the visit will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2025.

/Public Release. View in full here.