Destinations

Paradise polluted in the Maldives

If you were to describe any island of the Maldives archipelago as a dump, you’d be sure to raise a few eyebrows. With its clear, blue waters, beaches of white sand and colourful coral reefs, the Maldives is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places on earth. Yet Thilafushi, one of the 1192 coral islands that make up the Maldives, is anything but beautiful. In fact, it’s a municipal landfill designed specifically as a dumping ground for the island nation’s waste. 

Situated seven kilometres to the west of capital Mal√©, Thilafushi was originally a lagoon comprised of shallow coral reefs until 1992 when the Maldivian government decided upon a reclamation project that would serve to resolve Maldives’ urgent waste management problem. Soon Thilafushi became known by locals as Rubbish Island, with ships bringing 330 tonnes of refuse daily where, after minimal sifting and separation by migrant workers, the majority of it is buried at landfill sites. 

As one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations, and with tourism contributing a large portion of the country’s income, Thilafushi is a dumping ground not just for the garbage of the locals but also the 750,000 international guests that visit each year. An estimated 31,000 truckloads of garbage are transported to Thilafushi daily and the island now covers more than 50 hectares, growing at an estimated rate of one square metre every day. 

Thilafushi’s dark plumes of smoke and rancid piles of rubbish stand in stark contrast to the clean air, pure waters and rich green foliage of other Maldivian islands. However Thilafushi is more than a toxic blemish on the face of tropical paradise – it is an environmental tragedy that needs urgent attention. 

In 2004 the Maldives was devastated by a tsunami following the Indian Ocean earthquake. Most of the capital Mal√© was flooded, 88 people were killed and the damage bill for the islands ran to US$400 million ($425 million), around 62% of the country’s GDP. However another significant consequence of the tsunami that went mostly unreported was the wide scattering of toxic waste across hundreds of islands, a disaster that highlighted the urgent need for proper waste management systems. A joint effort by the Australian and Canadian Red Cross helped to remove debris from islands worst affected. A sustainable waste management program was also instituted which, importantly, involved the building of waste management centres. 

“I didn’t see waste as an issue before, but now I realise it is clearly the biggest environmental and health issue facing the Maldives,” a project officer from the Maldives Ministry for Environment told Red Cross representatives. 

Fortunately the Maldives government hasn’t ignored the problem but has instead taken steps to solve it, with improved waste management solutions one of the many environmental initiatives currently being implemented.

In 2008 the Maldives government announced a partnership with the World Bank as part of the first step towards developing a national solid waste management system. To this end the World Bank, a United Nations financial institution, loaned $US13.8 million ($14.7 million) for the establishment of the Maldives Environmental Management Project (MEMP), to be operated by the Ministry of Environment and Energy.

The main objectives of the MEMP are, firstly, to develop a socially and environmentally sustainable system of solid waste management that reduces the associated environmental and public health risks. Additionally, the program aims to strengthen the national technical capacity and quality of local expertise in environmental management and monitoring. The Maldives government has many expected outcomes of the MEMP that include the construction and management of sustainable and economically viable solid waste management systems at island and atoll levels. Developing a community participatory approach while designing and implementing island waste management centres and regional waste management facilities in order to enhance the sustainability of MEMP’s initiatives is another goal.

The scope of MEMP cannot be understated, with 50% of the project’s funding focused on setting up a waste management system in the northern region of the Maldives, which is composed of 46 inhabited islands, 255 uninhabited islands and 14 operational resorts. All islands and their residents will be included in the development of the new waste management system, with heavy promotion of the composting of organic waste at island level and the separation of recycled waste for reuse or resale. 

Perhaps most importantly, a new waste management centre on the island of Vandhoo is to become operational this year. It will use environmentally friendly incineration to dispose of waste, with unrecyclable incinerated ash stored in cells to prevent chemical leeching into water. The facility at Vandhoo will allow no open burning, mixed waste, or land reclamation using refuse. 

The MEMP is of vital importance towards developing a national waste management system, with its success determining whether the program in the northern region is to be replicated and scaled up across the country. The MEMP represents not only the Maldives government’s commitment to avoiding another disaster like Thilafushi but is also indicative of a wider effort to ensure an environmentally-friendly future for the Maldives.


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