The government has amended environmental regulations, paving the way for sand borrowing, dredging, and land reclamation activities within areas previously safeguarded under the nation’s stringent environmental laws. 

Announced through amendments gazetted by the Environment Ministry on Saturday, this legal adjustment now authorises such operations in locations designated as protected or “environmentally sensitive” for cabinet-approved projects.

Previously, the Environmental Protection and Preservation Act of the Maldives (Law number 4/93) and subsequent regulations introduced on 2 April 2013, had established clear prohibitions against sand borrowing from and dredging in sensitive zones. These included a 100-metre perimeter from the edge of a lagoon to an island’s shore, a 500-metre inner area of any lagoon from the outer wall, a 50-metre area inside the lagoon from an island’s shoreline, and within 200 metres of areas deemed protected or sensitive under the law.

However, a year following the initial regulations, amendments allowed for such activities with an Environment Protection Agency (EPA) permit, provided that stringent conditions were met. These conditions ranged from conducting comprehensive marine life research and making arrangements for the protection and management of areas, to evaluating and mitigating impacts on groundwater aquifers and addressing potential flooding issues through adequate drainage systems.

The latest amendments further relax these rules, extending permissions for land reclamation, sand borrowing, and lagoon deepening for projects sanctioned by either the cabinet or a cabinet committee, under the auspices of EPA-approved conditions. Despite the outlined prerequisites for environmental assessments and protections, the revisions have sparked significant criticism from environmentalists and former government officials.

Aminath Shauna, a former Environment Minister under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, voiced her apprehensions on the social media platform X, condemning the decision as an effective removal of protections from ecologically significant areas.

 “Between 2018-2023, we protected 44 ecologically significant areas across multiple atolls,” Shauna stated, highlighting the previous government’s efforts in expanding the nation’s protected areas network. Her plea to the government to continue these conservation initiatives underscores the perceived threat these legal changes pose to the Maldives’ delicate environmental balance.

The rationale behind the regulatory amendments remains unclear, with the Environment Ministry remaining silent in the face of requests for comment. This development raises critical questions about the future of environmental conservation in the Maldives, balancing developmental aspirations against the imperative of ecological preservation in a nation renowned for its unique biodiversity and vulnerability to climate change impacts.