Maldives is a group of islands in the Indian Ocean not very far from India. The people of Maldives are called Maldivians and their language is known as "Dhivehi". The Capital of Maldives is Malé.
The Maldives consists of atolls, coral reefs and low-lying coral islands. There are 22 geographical atolls comprising of about 1200 islands which are divided into 20 administrative units. Not all islands are inhabited. In fact only about 200 islands are inhabited. The rest are used for various activities the most important of which is tourism.
For politicians and environmentalists around the world, the Maldives is perhaps better known as islands drowning with the rising sea levels as a result of global warming. For reef scientists, the Maldives is known as one of the wonders of the world in terms of biodiversity, marine life and reef formations. The peculiarity of Maldivian atolls and their unique formation was so intriguing that early reef scientists and geographers decided to borrow the Maldivian term "atholhu" which is now used as "atoll" in the English language. So unique and well known are the atolls of Maldives which apparently has evolved in a decidedly non-Darwinian fashion according to findings of modern research. The word atoll (atholhu) has both administrative and geographical meanings in the Maldives.
The Maldive Islands are located in the Indian Ocean between 7° 06'N to 00° 45' S latitudes and 72° 13'E to 73° 45' Longitudes about 480 km South west of Cape Comorin, India and 650 km South west of Sri Lanka. It comprises of 22 natural atolls and some 1190 islands. The total length of the chain is 648 km north to south and 130 km east to west forming a double chain in the center.
The physical setting of the Maldivian atolls vary from open structures with numerous faros (ring-shaped reefs), patches and knolls in the atoll lagoon and around the rim (e.g. Malé Atoll & Ari Atoll) to almost closed structures with few lagoon reefs, knolls and patches (e.g. Kolhumadulu & Hadhdhunmathi Atolls).
Faros are ring shaped reefs emerging during tidal low water each with their own sandy lagoon and are separated by deep channels. They generally have a rim of living coral consisting of branched and massive types. Patches rise to 40 meters above the lagoon floor and are topped by robust wave-breaking corals. Knolls do not reach the surface and often support profuse coral growth, as do the reefs associated with many of the islands.
In geological time the filling up of the lagoons of faros and rim reefs by reef sediments has resulted in the formation of reef islands. The geomorphology of these islands vary tremendously in different atolls and is influenced by a variety of factors such as location, climate, currents, tides, sea level change and also human factors.
The islands are thought to be situated on top of layer of beach rock (about 1m thick), underlying the islands at about 30 cm to 60m above present mean sea level. At the edges of the islands the beach rock dips slightly seawards and forms a platform on which the beach sediments are seasonally transported around the islands. Within the atolls, the water depth is about 30-80 meters.
The Maldives has a total area of 90,000 sq. km including land and sea. The total land area is about 300 sq. km . Only three islands have an area greater than 4 sq. km and 9 islands greater than 2 sq. km. The islands are made up of coralline sand and have a very low elevation (on the average they are no more than 2 meters above sea level). The soil is highly alkaline, the water table is high and vegetation is sparse. Main vegetation types are coconut palms, salt resistant plants and mangroves.
Climate and Oceanography
The climate is of Maldives is totally governed by the monsoons. There are two monsoons - the south west and the north east monsoons. The south west monsoon (May - Oct) brings rain and the seas are moderate to rough during the SW monsoon winds. The north east monsoon (Nov - April) are marked by calmer and dry conditions. Surface currents and winds, humidity and rainfall and temperature and salinity are strongly effected by the monsoons. The absence of rivers and runoffs mean that sediments from inland sources are almost nil and hence the waters around Maldives are very clear and exhibit ideal conditions for coral growth. The Maldives is located outside the normal cyclonic zones and thus violent storms are rarely been experienced. Precipitation is on average 160-230 cm /year. Air temperatures range between 24° - 31° C. Spring tides range from 0.3-1.2m. Tides are semi diurnal sometimes mixed.
The islands have population of about 280,000 scattered over 200 islands. The capital Malé, which is not more than 3 sq. km. has a population of over 60,000 is located almost in the center of the archipelago. The population is young, 50% of the population is under 18 years of age and the population growth rate is 3.4%.
Being a country with more territorial sea than dry land, the Maldivians depend on resources almost entirely from the sea. The coral reefs which built the country play a vital role in the economic and social well-being of the country.
Fishing and tourism are the two main industries of Maldives. Both these industries are very healthy with good potential growth rates. They rely on healthy reefs for their existence. The majority of fish caught are tuna and tuna-related species. Other reef dependent species of fish and invertebrates are also exploited.
Fishery production increased from 82,000 MT in 1992 to over 104,000 MT in 1995. The export earnings from marine products has increased from RF 332 million in 1992 to RF 433 million in 1995 (1US$ = RF11.82). The reef fishery especially for the live food fish has increased tremendously from 127,000 nos. in 1994 to 400,000 nos. in 1995. Total fish production in 1996 was 105,000 MT of which reef fish landing for 1996 was 14,600 MT.
Income from tourism in 1993 amounted to 70 mill dollars. About 70 uninhabited islands are developed as tourist resorts and in 1996 there have been more than 300,000 visitors. Visitors are constrained by the number of beds available.
Industrial activities specially those relating to fishing and tourism are being developed in many atolls. Usually one island is developed for a particular economic activity. Tourist resorts and fish processing facilities are examples of such development. Over 70 tourist resorts are developed in 7 Atolls. Fish processing and cold storage facilities are situated in Lhaviyani, Gaafu Alif and Laamu Atolls. Laamu Atoll has also been declared as an industrial zone.
The reef fishery in the Maldives is expanding rapidly. In the late eighties and early nineties new reef fisheries activities developed. These were mainly export oriented e.g.: giant calm, sea cucumber and groupers. The grouper fishery which started in 1993 has increased dramatically. Due to high prices paid for groupers the fishery has expanded in a short period of time and its wide spread. There are already signs of over exploitation. Groupers are exported live and frozen.
Fishing can be carried out virtually anywhere by the local fishermen. There are few restrictions as to where fishermen can fish except only in resorts and MPA's. Concerns have been raised on the sustainable exploitation of reef fish resources and plans are underway to demarcate zones for reef fishing. Reef resources that are under pressure from over exploitation include giant clams, sea cucumbers, groupers, certain reef sharks, turtles, and corals. Management measures are being implemented to alleviate the pressure on these populations and reef resources in general.
State of the Environment
The marine environment is critical to the natural and cultural heritage of the Maldives. Marine areas support a great diversity of plants and animals. Marine ecosystems and resources are fundamental to the sustainable development of the country providing food, construction materials and a vast range of other products. Apart from supporting a growing tourism and recreation industry, marine ecosystems also play a vital role in fisheries, and in the culture and life style of people in Maldives. For sustainable development it is important that coral islands are developed with minimal impact to the marine environment displaying natural habitats and the traditional life style of people.
Development undoubtedly effects the environment and bio diversity in a negative manner. Maldives is no exception. The traditional life style of the people had almost negligible impact on the marine environment, but recent socio-economic developments have led to marked deterioration of the environment. With the increase in population growth and increased wealth from tourism and fishing, the pace of development have increased at a significant rate in the country, during the last two decades.
The need for land led to land reclamation programmes. Harbors are dredged to facilitate economic growth in islands. The demand for building materials in the form of coral nodules has increased steadily and coral mining has become a major environmental concern in the country. In addition to this the country is faced with localized environmental impacts as a result of tourism and waste discharges. Tourism, reef fishing, coral mining, dredging, reclamation and the construction of maritime structures and pollution do have impacts on the environment. Both tourism and fishing which represent the main industries in the Maldives rely heavily on coral reefs.