Hugo Tagholm leads the national marine conservation and campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage. He is part of the Edinburgh University Ocean Leaders programme and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Exeter University for his services to the marine environment.
I recently returned from an enlightening trip to the Indian Ocean, working with local environmental campaigners and activists in the beautiful island nation of the Republic of the Maldives. These incredible atolls perhaps most starkly represent the environmental challenge of our age – a nation at the front line of climate change, pollution and biodiversity stresses. Yet, their seas and islands still thrive with such a rich and diverse range of life, their land teems with creatures and the natural beauty of this archipelago of 1,200 islands is breathtaking. A wild abundance and rich complexity of life that unsurprisingly draws in visitors from around the world, divers, explorers, surfers and ocean lovers. The reef ecosystems are particularly rich and diverse, representing biodiversity hotspots that often intersect with surf spots. Rich in diverse life and rich in diverse waves.
I was there in my capacity as vision council member for the international NGO, Save the Waves. This ‘enviro-surf’ organisation unites a global coalition of voices to call for the biological, social and economic value of surf spots is considered and protected. This isn’t about simply protecting the privilege of being able to surf. This is about using the privilege of surfing to be able to protect the ocean for all. Working with and learning from local leaders is essential in this, and using our platforms to tell local stories of activism is essential, alongside sharing tactics, campaign strategies and resources wherever we can to advance the shared mission to protect the ocean.
During my visit, I was honoured to connect with local leader Saazu Saeed and Ahmed Aznil, co-founders of Save Our Waves Maldives, and local surfer Yaman Ibrahim, to learn more about the threats to local surf ecosystems. Brilliant local surf activists driving this campaign agenda forward, connecting surf habitats with environmental protection. Sadly, the threats are plentiful and growing. They estimate that there are over 20 surf ecosystems under extreme threat. This is really just a euphemism for reef ecosystem that are under threat. Development, sewage pollution and plastics stand out, but clearly the overarching threat of climate change looms large for the nation.
As storm surges increase, driven by a changing climate, islands are often developing sea defences that can have an adverse impact on the reef and wave ecosystem, and the very natural defence that reefs and near shore habitats provide. Chickens, one of the highest quality waves in the Maldives, has been significantly altered due to the construction of a seawall on the island, which has changed the shoreline structure. This wave also has untreated sewage effluent discharged directly through the line-up, sadly a common occurrence in a nation where freshwater and sewage treatment are scarce. Other surf ecosystems are faced with similar infrastructure projects; these will damage the wave, reef, and surf communities that depend on these special places. Plastic pollution is also endemic across the islands and, despite the pilot projects and ambitions of some NGO projects, large-scale waste management and recycling systems need dramatic investment.
I was honoured to be invited to meet the President of the Maldives, His Excellency Mr Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, whilst I was there to discuss environmental threats, issues and opportunities for the islands. We had a wide-ranging discussion, covering plastics, development and water quality. The Government of Maldives and Blue Prosperity Coalition is already committed to adopting a legally binding Marine Spatial Plan including designating at least 20% of the Maldives’ waters as fully protected marine areas. Additionally, the Government of Maldives signed on to the Clean Oceans Alliance earlier this year to protect 30% of global oceans by 2030. Hopefully, international support will bolster the calls of local leaders who want to ensure that ensure that surf ecosystems are also protected as part of the Marine Spatial Planning process and that waves around the country are recognized for the biological, cultural, economic, and recreational value they hold for the Maldivian people.
Living in the UK, I’m familiar with environmental campaigners spending huge amounts of time and money to deliver incremental and sometimes even marginal gains to protect familiar backyard nature. This has its place and should not be stopped. However, looking at the need around the world, in places like the Maldives, I wonder how we can better support and invest in local leaders to deliver dramatic, equitable and sustainable change for ecosystems that still thrive with life and are a fundamental part of the global system that supports us all, wherever we live?
The globalised economy is something that governments refuse to let fail, but its about time that the world acts to make sure that nature’s global economy isn’t allowed to fail. Helping support all nations to protect their natural resources and heritage without limiting progress has to play an increasingly important role as we recognise and restore our wild world, and deliver a bright future for all.
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