Let’s Just Replace Sinking Islands With Floating Cities Perched On Oil Rigs

Climate change is threatening the existence of the Maldives, and it’s already considering moving everyone to Australia. Maybe it should build new islands instead?

By the end of the century, as sea levels rise, most of the Maldives may be underwater. As the low-lying island country built on crumbling coral reefs tries to figure out what to do–and considers a possible move of 400,000 people to Australia–a design student has another suggestion: Rebuild a new version of the island that floats.


“I was interested in looking at the future of the Maldives because their situation is very unique,” says Mayank Thammalla, the New Zealand-based designer. “They are a nation that can lose their entire identity, a 2,000-year-old culture and their geographical position on the planet, due to projected sea-level rise within the next 100 years.”

Thammalla’s “Swim or Sink” project proposes reusing semi-submersible oil rigs to prop up the country’s cities of the future. New oil rigs can already house 600 to 700 people. “I challenged this idea and thought, what if oil-rig technology can house communities on a long-term basis?” he says.

He looked at the streetscapes of Malé, the capital, and imagined how a similar layout could perch on top of the rigs, with new housing built from local coconut timber (presumably, harvested before the coconut trees sink).

All of the components of the design already exist, in various forms. “In today’s world we tend to design or invent completely new from scratch, but I strongly believe we already have the available technology and resources to respond to many global issues,” Thammalla says. “Adaptive re-use of existing technologies is something as designers that we need to promote for the sustainable move forwards.”

Though the floating version of the Maldives is just a concept, the designer argues it could work. “I do not see why it cannot be feasible,” he says. “More than half of the costs of preparing an oil rig goes into the mechanical services and equipment for oil-drilling purposes. Without all that, I am sure the costs involved of just producing the structure required to float a community will be considerably cheaper.”

He also points out that the alternate plan, purchasing land in Australia, won’t be easy either. “What will the costs be there? A loss of their rich culture, a loss of their day-to-day activities, and a loss of their presence in their natural surrounding oceanic environment.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.