The High Court on Wednesday ordered the administration to suspend the reclamation project at Gulhifalhu.

The court ordered the suspension until a final judgment is issued in an ongoing civil case following a motion to review the Civil Court’s decision not to halt the dredging project.

Environmental activist Humaida Abdul Gafoor had filed a lawsuit stating that the dredging and reclamation would cause irreparable damage to the area’s ecosystem and that of surrounding areas.

Hans Haas Place, or Kiki Reef, a rich marine ecosystem that has been protected since 1995, will be destroyed, the lawsuit notes.

The majority opinion of the judges cited the financial loss to the state as irreparable and long-lasting if necessary measures are not taken to protect the environment.

The judges concluded that environmental damage was occurring because the sedimentation standards were not maintained to the extent described in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. The plaintiff in court noted that in some cases, sedimentation has reached 50 percent and 100 percent, according to sedimentation rate monitoring reports.

This is the first time a court has halted a major project in the Maldives because of potential harm to the environment.

A three-judge bench heard the case in the High Court, with Judge Huzaifa Mohamed upholding the opinion of Judge Mohamed Shaneez Abdulla, while Judge Mohamed Niyaz dissented.

This type of filing should be based on a constitutional case related to the public interest of the country, Judge Abdulla said in his opinion, in order to take immediate action and find a sustainable solution.

While Justice Niyaz, in his dissent, outlined that the court cannot simply intervene in an administrative motion by an individual to stop a development project on the grounds that it causes irreparable damage to the environment. This would be taking legislation into the hands of judges, he said.

“If the judges take the law into their own hands to stop these kinds of development projects, there will be many, many more projects of the same kind in this society,” he said.

There is no legal basis for an individual to have the right to stop such a project, he said explaining that there would be people who would sue based on the social and economic benefits of such a project.

According to the Maldives Land and Survey Authority, the area covers 370 hectares. Dredging at the area was initiated during the Mohamed Nasheed administration.

Under the first phase, work on reclaiming 10 hectares of land began in December 2010. The second phase of the four-phase project, which covered 40 hectares, began on 21 February 2011.

However, according to the Land and Survey Authority, the area at the time covered 26.91 hectares. Therefore, when the administrations changed, and the project stopped, that was the size of Gulhifalhu.

The administration reclaimed Gulhifalhu to provide housing and develop it as an industrial zone. Accordingly, flats were built there but it was not populated as a residential area.

During the Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom administration, housing projects were halted with some families given compensation in lieu of flats.

While many of the families had not received compensation for the flats, the Ibrahim Mohammed Solih administration compensated them by issuing flats. His administration also dredged the area with the intention of building a commercial port connected to the capital via a bridge.

It was decided that the project will add 192 hectares of land, with 42 hectares reclaimed under the first phase, in June 2020. This work, according to the administration, was completed in January 2021, all while the case was ongoing in court.

The project was awarded to Royal Boskalis and Van Oord from the Netherlands for US$53 million without a bidding process. The second phase of the 150-hectare excavation began in July 2023 and it was also awarded to Boskalis for US$150 million. Land from the area has also been allocated under the administration’s ‘Binriyari’ scheme.

After the Mohamed Muizzu administration took office, the decision was made to build the commercial port in Thilafalhu, expanding the area to be added to the project started by the previous Solih administration by 85 hectares. While the current administration has said that work is now underway, it has not disclosed the value of the project or other additional details.

According to available information, about 82 percent of the lagoon will be reclaimed making up 303 hectares, with Vilimalé and Thilafushi connected via a bridge.