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Alumnus combating coastal erosion in Maldives

Posted: 29 May 2024

Maldives, Alumni, Environment, Impact,

Before receiving his Australia Awards Scholarship, alumnus Dr Nashwan Matheen worked as an Assistant Surveyor, travelling to various islands in Maldives to carry out surveys needed for projects such as the development of harbours, construction of water and sewage networks, and environmental monitoring.

One of the key topics that always came up during discussions with the locals on these survey trips was the problem of coastal erosion and how it was affecting the lives of people living on the islands. At the time, Nashwan did not have the technical expertise on coastal processes in Maldives to be able to answer these questions. But the issue piqued his curiosity and made him want to understand coastal erosion. This led to Nashwan successfully applying for an Australia Awards Scholarship in 2012 to study a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which he believed would be a path towards understanding and finding a solution to this ever-present problem of coastal erosion in Maldives.

Nashwan at his PhD graduation.

Nashwan arrived in Sydney during summer, and the city’s sunny weather, warm temperatures and easy access to the sea reminded him a lot of Maldives. The people were so friendly that he immediately felt at home. One of his fondest memories of Australia is the variety of food that was available in Sydney. This wide selection of great tasting food further enhanced his experience of studying in Australia.

“I believe that the Australian experience has been a key factor in shaping who I am as a person today,” Nashwan says. “The easy-going environment of the university and the approach to teaching is something I loved experiencing and found to be very effective at helping me to grasp concepts. As such, it is something I try to emulate during my work as I believe it can help overcome some of the rigidity that comes from cultural norms in Maldives, which at times can hinder effective progress.”

During his studies, he also had the opportunity to work as a research intern at the UNSW Water Research Laboratory, which turned out to be an invaluable experience. During this summer placement, he met Professor Ian Turner, Dr Mitchell Harley and Dr Kristen Splinter, who would later invite him to study a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Coastal Engineering with them. This introduced Nashwan to the field of coastal modelling for hazard prediction.

Nashwan also received the Faculty of Engineering Dean’s Award in 2014, 2015 and 2016. He graduated at the end of 2016 with First Class Honours and received the University Medal in Environmental Engineering, one of UNSW’s most distinguished awards to be bestowed on an undergraduate.

Nashwan with Professor Mark Hoffman, UNSW’s then Dean of Engineering, in 2016.

After completing his studies, Nashwan worked as a graduate Engineer at CDE Consulting, where he collaboratively designed coastal protection measures for coral reef islands in Maldives.

In 2018, he returned to UNSW to read for his PhD, developing a coastal erosion early warning system to be implemented along wave-dominated sandy coastlines to enhance community preparedness for extreme storm events.

Since returning to Maldives in 2021, Nashwan has worked on a number of projects addressing coastal erosion. His efforts have developed coastal modelling in Maldives; previously, the limited in-country expertise meant that little to no coastal modelling was carried out by locals. The modelling projects Nashwan has worked on have helped provide insight into extreme coastal events in Maldives and have helped developments to be more climate resilient. He is also researching the morphodynamics of islands in Maldives and has contributed to understanding the impact of the Indian Ocean Dipole on shoreline behaviour in Maldives. This knowledge can be used to provide seasonal-scale forecasts of expected shoreline patterns for Maldivian islands. His most recent work has explored the challenges of collecting and hosting environmental data in Maldives. Through this work, he has made recommendations to improve management of data so that it can be harnessed to inform sustainable development for the benefit of all Maldivians.

Currently, Nashwan is working in two complementary roles. Firstly, he is a Research Coordinator for Earth Observation at the Maldives Space Research Organisation, where he carries out research to improve utilisation of earth observation data. One of the areas he is currently working on is the development of the Digital Earth Maldives platform, which is designed to allow unbiased and easy access to earth observation data across Maldives. Secondly, he is a Coastal Project Engineer at CDE Consulting, where his research outputs are used to develop sustainable erosion mitigation measures and beach management strategies for islands in Maldives. In this role, Nashwan evaluates erosional pressures for islands in Maldives, taking into account inter-annual variations such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole and seasonal variability caused by the monsoons, and develops erosion mitigation and beach management strategies. In most cases, this involves setting up and running coastal numerical models to understand design parameters, considering the future sustainability for these measures and strategies.

Nashwan remains in contact with colleagues he met in Australia during his PhD. Because they work in similar fields, albeit in different parts of the world, they can collaborate in many areas for research. Some of the grants which he is applying for have even been a direct result of the connections he developed during his time in Australia. One of the more recent grant applications that he has been involved in concerned the use of citizen science for coastal monitoring in Maldives. Dr Mitchell Harley, who was Nashwan’s PhD and bachelor’s degree honours supervisor in Australia, is one of the global experts in this area, and working with him led Nashwan to generate many of the concepts in the grant application.

Nashwan (right) conducting surveys with a colleague at Narrabeen-Collaroy beach in Sydney during his PhD.

“The Maldives Space Research Organisation where I work has also recently won a grant from the UNSW Global Ocean Accounts Partnership to extend their work on benthic classification in Maldives. The connection with Australia Awards and UNSW both helped facilitate the initial discussion, which led to talks about benthic classification,” says Nashwan.

Nashwan continues to develop coastal modelling in Maldives to see how it can be improved. His hope is to standardise the quality of models in Maldives and ensure the results provided are reliable. His work on the Digital Earth Maldives platform is similarly focused on data. The need for data was one of the key areas he identified as lacking when he first attempted to improve coastal modelling in Maldives. Nashwan hopes that the Digital Earth Maldives platform will eventually allow coastal modellers, marine biologists, coastal managers, developers and others access to the data they need in order to make informed decisions and carry out technical studies.

“One of my career goals is to develop a wave-induced flooding early warning system for Maldives. However, this requires significant improvements to coastal modelling for Maldives, as well as the completion of the Digital Earth Maldives platform, to provide the data needed for the wave-induced flooding forecasts,” Nashwan says, adding that “it is all connected together”.

A simulation highlighting forecast wave conditions over Maldives between 30 December 2023 and 5 January 2024.

Since completing his PhD, Nashwan participates in alumni activities where possible and is keen to be involved in discussions or working groups on climate resilience, adaptation and early warning. He is motivated not just to share knowledge but also to create actionable items for the benefit of Maldives.

“Everything I have learnt at university from my professors through my undergraduate and postgraduate studies has been extremely valuable and beneficial, especially in my line of work,” he says. “Without the experience, exposure and connections that I received through Australia Awards, I would not have been able to pursue my PhD nor access the other opportunities I received through my connections.”

Nashwan’s work can be followed on his X account at x.com/nashwanmatheen.

Top photo credit: The Maldives National University