Climate-Induced Loss and Damage and Cultural Loss in Maldives: A Case Study

April 6, 2023

Maldives’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) consists of only 1% land across 1,192 small islands and 99% sea, comprising the world’s seventh largest reef system. The seas teeming with marine flora and fauna, white sandy beaches, and year-round warm weather make the country a leading tourist destination. However, these very elements are also compounding factors in Maldives’ extreme vulnerability to climate change and its devastating impacts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 Synthesis Report confirms that widespread climate-induced loss and damage is a reality today. As global emissions remain on track to overshoot the 1.5-degree temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, ever-increasing losses and damages are on the horizon for vulnerable countries like the Maldives. 

Approximately 80% of the Maldives’ islands are less than one meter above the mean sea level, making it one of the lowest-lying nations in the world. The scattered, small islands house dispersed communities with human settlements and critical infrastructure in close proximity to the shoreline. This vulnerable geographical nature of the country and its reliance on a fragile natural environment poses both a developmental and an existential threat to Maldives. The impacts of climate change, in particular slow-onset events such as sea level rise, increasing temperatures, loss of biodiversity and ocean acidification, cause mounting economic and non-economic losses and damages to Maldives, even at the current 1.1 degrees of warming.

The rise in sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification has bleached and deteriorated the coral reefs surrounding the Maldivian islands. Recurring bleaching events and the increasing severity of bleaching have also hindered reef recovery, severely threatening marine biodiversity. In the Maldives Red List assessment, 23 of the 39 species assessed were found to be critically endangered, six species endangered, seven vulnerable, and three near threatened. 

Not only do coral reefs provide a habitat for the rich marine fauna of the Maldives, they also act as protective shields against waves, storms and floods for the islands they surround, enabling safe human settlements near the shorelines. Deterioration of the reefs therefore weakens the natural protection of the islands, resulting in land loss to coastal erosion and sea level rise. Damage to public and private infrastructure, including critical infrastructure, is rising due to the increased frequency and severity of storm surges. Between July 1st to 3rd of 2022 alone, 35 islands in 11 atolls in Maldives faced severe flooding from storm surges.

Maldives’ marine and coastal biodiversity have immense economic value for its tourism sector. As a developing country with an economy heavily reliant on its climate-sensitive natural assets, climate change impacts on these elements cause direct economic losses. Thriving coral reefs and marine life (such as manta rays, sharks, whale sharks, and turtles) are a major appeal for tourists. The tourism sector employs a large percentage of the country’s workforce and is the single top contributor to Maldives’ GDP (21.4% in 2021). The degradation of coral reefs and marine life would cause declines in tourism activity, impacting the GDP and the livelihoods of thousands employed in the sector. 

Similarly, the loss of beaches to erosion, which is already being reported by many resorts, negatively impacts the country’s status as a tourist destination. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a preview of the effects that a negatively impacted tourism sector would have on the country, as the GDP in 2020 declined by 33.5% compared to 2019, and thousands faced unemployment as border closures brought the tourism industry to a halt.

The fisheries industry is another key sector accounting for a significant share of employment in the outer islands and serving as the sole source of fish and fish products as the country’s main export. The sustenance of the fisheries industry is contingent upon healthy fish stocks and the wellbeing of reefs and reef ecosystems. Therefore, any climate impacts on the reefs, and subsequently, the marine biodiversity, will directly affect the fisheries sector, livelihoods of inhabitants of remote islands, and the country’s overall export revenue. Fish and fish products are also featured heavily in the local cuisine, with fish being the main source of protein for local communities. Thus, with climate change affecting the fisheries industry, malnutrition could also become an increasingly prevalent issue for the population.

Rising temperatures, wetter monsoon seasons, and more frequent extreme weather events could also contribute to a higher prevalence of vector-, food-, and water-borne diseases. For a capacity-constrained developing country with a geographically dispersed population, this poses numerous challenges in addressing and attending to both the physical and mental health of those affected.

It is important to note that Maldives is not solely its territory and natural or built environment but instead an amalgam of its territory, people, history, and cultures. Maldives’ centuries long history is evident in its local language, traditional medicine, food, clothing, and sites of cultural heritage. The identity of the country and its people are tied to these cultural elements, which face eradication as Maldives’ habitability declines under the growing climate stress. For instance, much of the local traditional cuisines feature ingredients grown or sourced locally, such as coconuts, breadfruit, or fish. Heat, irregular rainfall patterns, and soil salinity can affect the availability of these ingredients, and, in turn, the practice of preparing traditional dishes.

This blog post has been developed as part of SLYCAN Trust's work programme on loss and damage in partnership with the Climate Change Department of the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, and Technology of the Republic of Maldives. For more information, please visit the programme homepage and our Adaptation & Resilience Knowledge Hub.

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