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Fortress islands and floating cities: extreme solutions that could save the Maldives from sinking

Hulhumale, an artificial island built up to 3 metres above sea level next to the capital city of Male
Hulhumalé is a 1.5 square mile artificial landmass that’s currently home to more than 50,000 residents - Carl Court/Getty Images AsiaPac

The Maldives is facing an existential crisis: within just a century, the majority of this archipelago of 1,192 tropical islands – ever-popular with honeymooners and lovers of barefoot-luxe – will have been consumed by the sea.

Already, warning lights are flashing. More than 80 per cent of the Indian Ocean nation, known for its floury white sands and pristine blue lagoons, sits less than one metre above current sea levels. Add to this that precious sources of fresh drinking water have been spoiled by the encroaching waves (meaning that most of the 187 inhabited islands rely on expensive – and often temperamental – desalination plants), and things start to look desperate.

Of course, in desperate times come desperate measures. In 2008, former president Mohamed Nasheed warned that the country “would have to look for alternative places for Maldivians to live” – potentially going the same way as Tuvalu, a similarly low-lying country in the South Pacific, which recently reached a deal with Australia to rehome some of its citizens.

But now it seems there’s been a change of tack: the Maldives has decided to fight back, and be – in the defiant words of its new leader, president Mohamed Muizzu – “self-sufficient” in its response.

On one hand, this has come in the form of sustainability practices – not least from the Maldives’ hotels. The Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, for example, now boasts one of the country’s largest solar installations, big enough to save 300,000 litres of diesel a year and prevent 800 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to over 500 flights between London and Malé.

Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Maldives
The Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru boasts one of the country’s largest solar installations, big enough to save 300,000 litres of diesel a year

Another five-star resort, Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi, now uses generator heat to produce the island’s hot water, and Kudadoo Maldives Private Island recently became the first fully solar-powered resort, thanks to nearly 1,000 solar panels that cover its rooftop. Many hotels are also striving to reduce their food miles by developing island-grown alternatives. Amilla, for example, has its own mushroom hut, coconut-processing facilities, a banana plantation and hydroponic garden.

But with almost all of the Maldives’ hotels now claiming to be sustainable – and the country’s tourism industry still ultimately reliant upon long-haul flights – it’s clear that green credentials alone will not be enough.

Kudadoo Maldives Private Island
Bright idea: Kudadoo Maldives Private Island recently became the first fully solar-powered resort

So the Maldives has brought out the big guns – taking inspiration from densely populated capital Malé, home to more than 130,000 people per square mile, which was ringed with fortress-like walls some years ago. Built using concrete blocks and rubble, mostly imported from Indonesia since the Maldives are coral islands, the highest stand at just over 10ft. And they’ve already proved their worth: when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in 2004, the swell was roughly 2ft below the top of the barriers. Now, various other islands – including Mahibadhoo – have benefitted from similar constructions, occasionally to the disapproval of tourists disgruntled by the interrupted views.

And these new measures don’t end at concrete barriers: entirely new islands have been created by pumping sand on to submerged coral platforms. One such island, Hulhumalé in the Kaafu Atoll, is a 1.5 square mile artificial landmass that’s currently home to more than 50,000 residents, but it’s hoped that 240,000 could live there within a few more years. Unlike the overcrowded capital, streets here were designed to optimise wind penetration, reducing the need for air-conditioning. Schools, parks and mosques were also built within a 600ft walk of residential developments, to help cut car use.

And the future looks set to see more extreme solutions still, with the construction of Maldives Floating City, the first project of its kind on Earth: a more than 500-acre development that will support 5,000 low-rise homes and have space for 20,000 people. Crisscrossed by canals and white-sand pathways, it will be a car-free neighbourhood, where only bicycles, electric buggies and scooters may venture. As an added incentive, tourists who purchase homes there will be permitted to apply for a Maldivian Residence Permit.

The Maldives Floating City is designed to resemble the hexagonal structure of brain coral
The Maldives Floating City is designed to resemble the hexagonal structure of brain coral

But the situation is changing fast, and it may not be long before each pristine atoll is forced to ring itself with fortress-like concrete, or until footprints along the shallows give way to floating platforms. And when they do, will the world’s tourists abandon this former idyll in favour of the next natural nirvana? Only time will tell.