Opinion | The push for sustainable blue economy in the Maldives is based on its traditions and folk stories

For the Maldives and the vast majority of Asia-Pacific countries that rely on coastal and marine ecosystems, the blue economy has yet to reach its full potential. It is not just an economic strategy; for these nations, including the Maldives, it is a necessity for their survival. While fisheries and marine tourism have flourished naturally, other investment-intensive sectors such as renewable marine energy, marine biotechnology and green and resilient infrastructure require enabling financing and policies to thrive.

Fishermen unload their catch at the Male fish market, Maldives. Photo: Ricky Chung

Support policies as catalysts

The Maldives and the other Pacific Small Island Developing States are putting in place some of the most ambitious policies to turn their challenges into opportunities. Energy security and a just transition to sustainable production are key priorities in their Nationally Determined Contributions.

The Maldives announced at COP28 its commitment to develop renewable energy systems, with the aim of meeting 33 per cent of the country’s energy needs within the next five years. If this commitment becomes a reality, it could save almost US$750 million from the national budget currently spent on energy. At the global plastics treaty negotiations held last year in Paris, SIDS put forward an ambitious proposal, involving the implementation of effective waste management solutions for SIDS funded by plastic producers. The Maldives is also currently piloting an initiative to establish a sustainable waste-to-energy facility in the capital region, with the potential to expand the initiative to all islands.

The missing link of finance

Ahead of the fourth International Conference on Small Island States (SIDS4) in May, the Maldives hosted the first Asia-Pacific Blue Economy Forum, supported by the United Kingdom under the Climate Finance Network hosted by the United Nations Development Programme. Participants from 15 countries in the region, along with expert groups and private sector partners, identified common challenges affecting all sectors of the blue economy, including declining overseas development assistance, lack of financing and big data opportunities, governance of coastal ecosystems, and the need for greater access to finance and innovation.

President Mohamed Muizzu shared similar sentiments on the global stage at SIDS4, and the Maldives, along with other SIDS leaders, called for a revitalized multilateral approach that could address the SIDS financing gap and incorporate vulnerability measures in the allocation of concessional financing.

Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu speaks during a plenary session of the UN Climate Summit, COP28, in December. Photo: AP

Leaders also called for reforms to the international financial architecture to strengthen the voice and representation of SIDS and other developing countries.

To bridge the financial gap and harness the full potential of ocean resources, investments must reach the micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) that dominate the region’s economies. MSMEs often drive innovation and open up new market segments, and pooling and de-risking investments are essential to facilitate access to finance.

SMEs also have the potential to influence market behaviours, as demonstrated by the Maldives’ own augmented reality digital education app Hologo, which has now gained global prominence in 3D, AR and VR content for education. Other similar innovations include OdiApp, which facilitates maritime transport in the country, and eDhumashi, a fintech solution for women fisherfolk that helps expand their market access and improve economic benefits across the entire value chain of the fisheries sector.

For SIDS to unlock their catalytic blue economy and development potential, national and global partners from the public and private sectors must act now. Universal acceptance of the Multidimensional Vulnerability Index and related measures could boost access to finance and facilitate the necessary investments for these nations that are at the forefront of losses. This must be accompanied by continued leadership and action to realize the potential of an inclusive and sustainable blue economy.

As a key public good, the blue economy is as important globally as it is for SIDS, and the opportunities it offers are as vast and deep as the ocean.

Divers swim alongside a whale shark in the Maldives. Photo: Getty Images

A connection as old as time

There is a Maldivian folk tale about a man who lives on top of a whale, a companion with whom he has shared many years. He perches on the whale’s back and clings to its fin, and the whale, in turn, understands that it must not dive deep for long periods to safeguard the man’s life. Occasionally, it dives briefly if it senses danger nearby. The man feeds on raw fish, which he skillfully catches with his hands, with the whale helping him locate it. Many Maldivian fishermen report seeing this man on top of the whale, but if they see him, both quickly retreat to the depths.

The answer to the blue economy lies in revisiting the core of history and ancestral wisdom: the Maldives’ deep connection to nature and its dependence on it. The love and care we receive from the ocean are treasures we will cherish for future generations.

Enrico Gaveglia is the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme in the Maldives.