Two Thousand Isles: Island Stakes

Aerial view of a guesthouse in GA Kolamaafushi. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Aerial view of a guesthouse in GA Kolamaafushi. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

By Daniel Bosley

During the course of the Two Thousand Isles project, we are hoping to get an up-close look at how island life is changing, and to share what we see.

As well as the customs, crafts and quirks of island culture, this will also involve getting more familiar with the islands themselves, whether they be growing, shrinking, inhabited, deserted, or have in fact disappeared altogether.

Anyone visiting the atolls today – us included – can’t fail to notice that many islands are expanding at a rapid rate; though not as a result of any natural phenomenon. In Huvadhu, past reclamation projects have transformed islands like Villingili and Gaddhoo, while places like Thinadhoo and Madaveli have been part of this government’s more recent splurge, which has already added more than one percent to the Maldives’ land mass over the past three years.

It’s hard to know how much land the ocean has itself ‘reclaimed’ during that time, but the projects have come with almost 11km of protective revetments. Most new land is protected with hulking boulders, while Thinadhoo has staked out its western reaches with a pioneering ‘geo-bag’ coastal protection project.

Aerial view of reclaimed area in GDh Thinadhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Aerial view of reclaimed area in GDh Thinadhoo. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

After millenia of gradual give and take, continuing development of the islands today requires the archipelago’s human settlers to play for keeps. For as living standards in the islands have risen almost immeasurably over the last 40 years, so the impact of freak weather events and the (as yet unmeasured) impact of climate change has also grown.

It’s impossible to visit the islands of Gaafu Alif without hearing stories of the 2004 tsunami, when the islands seemed to sink temporarily beneath the ocean. But even across the lagoon, where most of the islands reported little impact from that day, those on the south-west tell tales of huge swells inundating their streets in 2007. Blue-roofed tsunami houses’ and sandbanks blocking the ocean’s return are daily reminders of these events.

But older stories of islands lost and islands abandoned bring home the unique challenges facing the atoll’s inhabitants as an increasingly demanding civilisation and its untamed environment come into more regular conflict. Regardless of whether climate change is accelerating the ocean’s claim on Maldivian real estate, it seems that the harmony between human settlements and the local ecosystem has already reached its limits.

Sandbags in GDh Nadellaa. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Sandbags in GDh Nadellaa. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Before technological and economic developments brought a boom in permanent stone and brick buildings, harbours, power plants, and sewerage systems, islanders could more easily pack-up and head to a new island should plagues, waves, jinn, or a coalition of the three, force them out.

While Huvadhu currently has eighteen inhabited islands (plus two airports), many more show evidence of former occupation, with graves, mosques, and buried artefacts testifying to the formerly flexible nature of life in the islands.

Local lore tells that the people of Nadellaa and Hoandedhoo had previously lived on the now-empty island of Kanandhoo, but no detailed history of these settlements remain to lend guidance to the present.

Over the past fifty years, the apparently eponymous island of ‘Huvadhu’ (surely of some past significance) has disappeared altogether, while a small sandbank between Faresmaathodaa and Vaadhoo has grown steadily over the last two decades, recently installing its own vegetation…without any government assistance!

Sandbank Island in Gaafu Dhaalu. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Sandbank Island in Gaafu Dhaalu. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Less well-planned developments have been shown to disrupt natural patterns of sand distribution, as well as leaving them more vulnerable to nature’s whimsy. Male’ is perhaps the best example of the latter, with the devastating 1987 floods making plain the need to consolidate developments on the capital island; developments which themselves probably contributed to the disaster.

During our trip, we found another potential example of this in Gaafu Alif Kanduhuludhoo, where sand-mining has caused the disappearance of an island many had credited with protecting the village from disaster in 2004.

The subsequent US$23 million sea-wall around Male’ has secured that island’s immediate future, though the consequences of Kanduhulhudhoo’s reduced defence against an ocean assault is less clear; though more long-term migration to the capital is probably a decent guess.

So far, the stories we’ve found are clear reminders of the rapidly changing reality of island settlements in the Maldives. The formerly transient nature of island life seems increasingly incompatible with the future as rapid developments are raising the stakes – and the waves – ever higher.


Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands.

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