Rubble in Paradise: How Pollution and Climate Change are Reshaping the Maldives

About a month ago I packed up the suitcase with board shorts and sunscreen for a week in the Maldives.  When you think of the Maldives, your mind probably jumps to scenes of pearl sands, turquoise waters, and ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ resorts, where you just might happen to run into an A-lister.  All flexing aside, I sure had plenty of sand time, sipped cocktails out of coconuts, and got plenty of smug selfies for Instagram (see below). Unfortunately for yours truly, the reality of traveling on a shoestring budget meant that the $3000/night resort islands were slightly out of my price range. Instead, I opted to stay on a local island, Maafuushi, for a fraction of the cost.  

(Photo cred. Patrick Donohue)

After taking a late flight in from Sri Lanka, and then a starlit water taxi into Maafuushi harbor, I woke up my first morning expecting to be wowed.  I sure was surprised with what I found…a whole lot of plastic. No matter where I walked along the shore, I came across washed up bottles, styrofoam containers, plastic bags, and other debris.  I was disgusted, but more to the point, I was heartbroken.

The dirty secret of the Maldives’ plastic problem is something you likely won’t  hear about or see trending on Instagram. The ugly truth is that the problem is here to stay, and there’s no easy way to clean up this mess.  

Some Raw Figures:

  • There are more than 400 metric tons of trash generated on the Maldives daily.
  • 1.3 million tourists visited the Maldives in 2017, and it has been estimated that each tourist contributes an average 3.5kg of waste daily.
  • Every day,  280,000 plastic bottles are discarded in Malé, the capital city, alone.
  • In 2018, 104 million plastic bags were imported to the Maldives.
  • It takes 450-500 years for a plastic bottle to decompose. Some plastic bags take even longer.

Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to point a finger at tourists and blame them for the nation’s pollution problem. Teleologically speaking, sure. Tourists leave a lot of waste, and the aggregated effect is islands of trash.  The reality of the situation, as is often the case, is much more nuanced. In a developing country whose economy is inextricably linked to Tourism, a sector which generates 33% of the tiny nation’s GDP, and has brought growth, jobs, and prosperity to its people, it’s difficult to make the argument that the nation would be better off without all the visitors.

Perhaps the biggest issue Maldivians face is the unique geographical makeup of their country. The Maldives is comprised of around 1,200 islands in 26 atolls.  With a total landmass of only 298 sq. km, spread out over 90,000 sq. km, it’s not only the smallest country in Asia, but also the most dispersed. Because these islands are so small and spread out, nearly everything must be imported. 

Political Map of the Maldives. (Photo cred. Maldivesbest.com)

Where does this waste end up?  While countries with more land have the luxury of landfills and large-scale waste treatment facilities, much of the waste generated in the Maldives is shipped and unloaded on Thilafushi, the ‘trash island’.

Trash field on Thilafushi. (Photo cred. desdemonadespair.net )

Once a pristine lagoon, this island, located a couple kilometers west of Malé, looks like a scene from a dystopian parable.  Seriously, do a google image search for Thilafushi, it will break your heart.  The island now covers 500,000 square meters, and is growing at a pace of 330 tons of dumped waste per day.  If your stay is at a private island resort whose beaches are combed by staff every morning, you might never see the underbelly of tourism in a tropical paradise.  Or maybe you might spot a white plume of smoke rising to the sky, just as I did en route to a snorkeling trip. The realization that what you’re seeing is actually burning garbage makes the experience feel just a bit hollow. 

Rolling Up Sleeves

Taking initiative, several grass-roots and government programs have sponsored island-wide cleanups and recycling drives.  Other campaigns, such as those spearheaded by Unicef, have provided education for locals in proper waste reduction and recycling techniques. Parley for the Oceans (shoutout to my ultraboosts) have partnered with the Maldivian government to open a plastic recycling facility on Malé, capable of recycling 500kg of material every day.  Together with Adidas, they’ve worked to convert 5 million plastic bottles to sneakers and gym wear. On the legislative side of things, in July the Maldivian Parliament passed an ambitious resolution which aims to ban all single-use plastics from the islands by 2025.

A beach cleanup on Nika Island sponsored organized by Parley. (Photo Cred. Maldiveshotelier.com)

Endangered People

How about global warming and rising sea levels?   For a nation of tiny islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where 80% of all landmass lies less than 1 meter above sea level, the outlook is expectedly bleak. Watching storm waves crash and then walking through the flat, compacted-sand streets, a very primordial uneasiness sinks in….there is no high ground.  Take a look at this video from the 2004 Tsunami that hit the Maldives if you want an idea of how destructive floods can be to the islands.

Doesn’t portend well, does it?

Already, most inhabited islands have experienced severe beach erosion, while seasonal storms are causing more damage than ever before, and monsoon seasons have become increasingly volatile.  If water tables continue to rise at their current pace, the UN has projected that most of the Maldives will be underwater by 2100.  Worst case scenario, the entire population of 436,000 islanders will become climate refugees. 

This looming threat rides heavy on all Maldivians; in fact, the Maldives was the first nation to sign the Kyoto protocol.  ‘We are not prepared to die. We are not going to become the first victims of the climate crisis. Instead, we are going to do everything in our power to keep our heads above water,’ Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, recently told leaders at UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland. ‘Climate change is a national security issue for us. It is an existential threat.’

Heads Above Water

Faced with a literal sink or swim, there have been extensive efforts by the Maldives to combat rising sea levels.  The most shining example is the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé, The City of Hope.  This project, headed by a corps of engineers and currently under construction, aims to dredge sand from the ocean floor and fill in a lagoon close to Male. 

Hulhumalé Mockup. (Photo Cred. Maldives Times)

When completed in 2023, Hulhumalé will be protected by sea walls 3 meters high, and able to accommodate roughly 130,000 people (close to 1/3 of the nation’s population).  According to Shiham Adam, director of the Maldives Marine Research Center, ‘It is possible to reclaim any island. We have seen that it takes just four weeks to reclaim about 24 hectares of land. All you have to do is bring the dredgers, suck sand and pump it on the low-lying land in shallow waters. It takes four weeks to build the island and a couple more to put boulders around to stabilize it. To survive we just need money.’

Another integral component to combating sea level rise is the development and restoration of wetland ecosystems.  Wetlands are vital, as they create a barrier to storm and flood waters, purify and recharge freshwater stores, and curb coastline erosion in critical areas.  As their importance to island life becomes better understood by Maldivians, agencies such as the Climate Change Adaptation Project at the Maldivian Ministry of Environment aim to secure funding to develop wetland systems and national parks on islands throughout the nation. 

Aduu wetlands and national park. (Photo cred. EPA Maldives)

While dredging and wetland restoration projects are tangible solutions to the climate crisis that Maldivians are already beginning to face, they aren’t cheap.  To survive, the Maldives must count on tourist dollars and taxes from resort islands, leasing agreements for island use, and aid from foreign governments. Will these measures be enough to weather the tide?  Only time will tell.

To Wrap

Despite all the issues the Maldivian people face, you’d never know there was anything wrong by the smiles on the locals faces, or the pace of high-rise hotel construction.  Chatting up a friendly shopkeeper that sold me some postcards, I asked him about the situation. ‘You’ve got to stay positive,’ he assured me. ‘Allah willing, you do your part, pray for the best, and trust your children to be smarter than your parents.’   Well said, sir.

Want to help?  Cut down on single-use plastics, recycle, donate to organizations like Oceana, Parley, or Unicef, learn more about displacement solutions, support a carbon tax, inform yourself, contact your representatives, and Vote!

(Photo cred. Nemo)

P.S.

I’ll admit it:  this post has been fairly somber. Look past all that I’ve said, and I’ll tell you that the Maldives is beyond words as gorgeous as everyone says it is, and if you ever get the chance to visit, don’t hesitate to go!  Just bring an aluminum water bottle with you.

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