A Floating Island of Waste
Paradise on Earth? Perhaps not.
The Maldives, largely known for its dream resorts built on 99 of its 200 inhabited islands, is a honeymoon paradise with picturesque blue waters, swaying palm trees and white sands. The 1,192 archipelago caters to close to three quarters of a million tourists every year. But while honeymooning couples and vacationing tourists flock to this breathtaking destination, the foreign exchange that they bring in comes with its costs. The unfortunate opportunity cost of allocating the Maldives’ pristine beaches to tourists can be summed up in one word: Thilafushi. An island built on reclaimed coral reefs around two decades ago, Thilafushi or ‘garbage island’ as it is commonly known, has become a dumping ground that would make even the most under developed parts of the world look clean.
Far removed from the natural beauty that is associated with the Maldives, Thilafushi is home to piles of garbage, mostly comprising tourist associated debris - plastic bottles, crisps packets and candy wrappers. As migrant workers light fires to burn the litter, toxic fumes infiltrate the once clean air with dust particles and flies. Keeping aside the damage inflicted on the ozone layer, the harmful effects of inhaling this polluted air have serious health consequences for the migrant workers who hail mostly from Bangladesh.
The heaps of rubbish that have formed layers of filth over the land are certainly a sore sight for the eyes. The country dumps 330 tons of garbage daily, most of it associated with the tourism industry as each tourist generates 3.5 kg of waste per day. However, a large chunk of industrial waste in the form of lead, asbestos and other metals also finds a place on this island. Apart from the ruthless air and land pollution, a massive amount of water pollution also occurs. The Indian Ocean lagoon is increasingly subjected to waste that cannot be burned or is conveniently tipped over by boats that cannot wait for hours to offload their contents onto Thilafushi. As chemicals and solid waste pollute the water, it becomes a dangerous habitat for life under the sea. Apart from the loss of marine life, edible fish is also contaminated, disrupting the food chain and eventually causing harm to humans.
It is critical that the environment be protected for its own sake. In our quest for achieving higher standards of living, humans have failed to give importance to the need for leaving the world’s resources the way we found them, for the sake of future generations. By carelessly harming the environment, the Thilafushi scenario is eventually depleting free goods: water and air. As the piles of trash are left to rot on the island they decompose and result in the emission of greenhouse gases, which in turn cause global warming. This significantly adds to the Maldives’ greatest woe: the looming threat of a rising sea level. Are these costs worth the huge amounts of economic growth that mass tourism brings for the Maldives? The short
and long-term consequences for the environment are severe. For a country like the Maldives, such reckless disposal is an affront and an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. The country’s mere existence is at stake so immediate attention must be paid to the Thilafishu crisis.
The previous government under President Mohamed Nasheed, recognizing the gravity of waste management, had signed a deal with the India based ‘Tatva Global Renewable Energy’. According to the agreement, a system would be designed to recycle waste for power generation. However, with political instability gripping the Maldives, the new government has yet to finalize the deal. Despite the delays, the environmental hazards are so grave that the State Minister for Environment and Energy approached the Tourism Ministry to place environment officers in resorts. These officers are responsible for ensuring that waste from the resorts is not dumped at Thilafishu, as is the case right now. As the Maldivian Minister for Tourism rightly stated “One of the main issues which has a negative impact on the tourism industry at present is the issue of garbage: the sight of garbage floating in the sea, the sight of smoke from burning garbage as the flights descend to land. This has a very detrimental impact on value addition.” While this statement may seem irresponsible for its cut throat nature and somewhat crude emphasis on material gains as opposed to concern for the environment, it shows that there is a sense of awareness about the issue at hand and this shows the need for a desperately needed solution.