The Maldives: A toxic time bomb

The idyllic islands have a dirty, polluting secret.

January 12, 2015

A giant steel claw crunches into the deck of the boat. Its prey is a rancid pile of garbage packed so high that it spills over, and into, the remnants of those electric-blue Maldivian waters found on screensavers in dreary cubicles the world over.

On land, Mohamed Ahmed bends over, hacking into an oily rag tied around his mouth, in a bid to shield him from the acrid smoke. It’s of little use. All day long the rubbish boats come, and all day long they get burnt on this island, just a few minutes from some of the world’s most exclusive island resorts.

I ask Mohamed, who gets paid about AED 40 a day to shovel tonnes of often noxious trash, where it all comes from. “From you,” he says. “The resorts and all the people that come here for a holiday,” he says, pointing off into the distance, and to places he’ll never visit. The resorts, out there in the distance, go beyond ticking the travel agent poster boxes. They defy all of the usual travel story superlatives and need to be seen in person, either from above or with boots on the ground. Maldives rubbish. The blinding white beaches are brighter in person. The translucent waters are clearer. Their fluorescent blues sometimes match, and sometimes exceed, the skies above. And the contrasting dark navy of the deep-water channels outside the lagoons, really do house some of the world’s richest marine life.

On the islands, the swaying palms seem prettier. The butler service more attentive, and the frangipani smell sweeter. But with Maldives’ pressing environmental concerns, for how much longer? While there are a few small basic recycling companies in the country, they are ill-equipped for the daily deluge of waste.

Most trash is simply dumped and burnt here at Thilafushi, a half-hour boat trip from the capital. “Solid waste management is the most pressing problem. Strengthening and funding local government – the local islands don’t have dustbins or municipal workers,” says Ali Rilwan, executive director of Bluepeace, the country’s oldest environmental organisation.

“Climate change is a long-term global issue but we strongly believe in ecosystems for short- and medium-term adaption. The coral reefs and the mangrove systems play an important role in protecting the islands from storms. In order to protect these things you need to properly manage the waste.” Maldives rubbish. It’s a bitter irony that the industry that provides about 70 per cent of jobs in the country, the majority of its gross domestic product, and pulled Asia’s smallest country from the cellar of the world’s poorest, might also be its downfall.

Maldivians joke that the only mountains in the country are the growing mounds of garbage threatening the very resource from which they came. It’s the lowest lying nation on Earth. At just 2.4 meters at its highest point – a chipping tee at Shangri-La’s southern Villingili resort – it is extremely vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. Already, a few dozen islands have been claimed by the water.

Environmental insiders say that if the polar ice caps continue to melt and the seas continue their slow-encroaching march upwards, this country of approximately 380,000 people could be washed away within the next five decades, making Maldivians the world’s first environmental refugees. “We all talk about climate change. We’ve been talking about it for 20 years, but there are no coherent policies of the government to address it. It’s fragmented. We know that the reduction of greenhouse gases is not possible in the current global political landscape. It’s just not going to happen,” says Ali. Maldives rubbish. But for now at least, nobody in government seems overly concerned. Today’s Maldives has a growing reputation for the type of luxury that celebrities and business kingpins point their gulfstream jets towards and for honeymooners to save for. New hotel openings, tourism earnings and average room rates have surged over the past five years.

In 2013, travellers pouring through the turnstiles topped one million for the first time, with much of that growth coming from China. The Middle Kingdom now accounts for about 30 per cent of all visitors to this 1,200-island chain. That growth is pressing foreign investors to spend about $1.7 million per room for five-star properties and open up more three and four-star hotels for Chinese tour groups.

The stakes are high for financial backers, looking to cash in on one of the world’s most profitable markets. It’s a dangerous game of unchecked growth, lax regulations, and weaker enforcement. Tourism and sustainability are in natural conflict. The pressures placed on the environment through the industry are many. Almost all power stems from on-site diesel generators, including desalination plants used for drinking water. Wastewater if not treated gets pumped back onto the reefs, along with sewage. And the sheer Co2 cost of multi-hour flights to get there are enormous. 

Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who most Male insiders say was disposed of in a coup backed in part by disgruntled local resort owners after he tried to institute income taxes on their earnings, has called environmental problems the country’s most pressing concern.

He held an underwater cabinet meeting to drum up international attention, toured (and became a darling) of global emissions conferences, and attempted to start a sovereign wealth fund to purchase land in other countries in case his countrymen found themselves underwater without a life raft.

Nasheed, a serial political prisoner under the country’s former 30-year dictatorship, also announced that Maldives would become carbon neutral in a decade, displacing the country’s total reliance on imported oil with renewable energies such as wind and solar, while building state-of-the-art integrated waste-management systems. Those plans now lay in tatters.

“This new administration has not only scrapped all of those plans, they haven’t even come up with their own solutions. For them the environment was Nasheed’s deal. Politically they don’t want to go near it,” says a senior Ministry of Environment staffer, who asked to not be named. “Despite the environmental fallout, we can’t pay our bills and we continue to rely on imported diesel and subsidies to power everything. It’s the definition of unsustainability.”

Critics say while the health of Maldives – its atolls ringed by about five per cent of the world’s total reefs, home to more than 1,900 species of fish and teeming corals – have global consequences, locals also need to take ownership of their own problems. Maldives rubbish. Throughout the country’s towns and villages, rubbish litters the broken streets. At one island ferry port, it’s hard to see where the rubbish ends and the water begins. Oil and diesel stream from poorly maintained boat engines, and on local islands, residents burn trash in the same fashion as the catastrophe on Thilafushi. “Before tourism kicked off in the 70s, this was one of the poorest places on the planet,” says James Reefton, a marine biologist whose spent a decade in-country.

“Back then, everything was biodegradable or reusable. So, culturally, the locals don’t have a built-in idea of where refuse goes when they throw it away. There needs to be a concerted effort to educate people about protecting the environment.”

Whether these concerns will be addressed remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that as more tourists venture from the comfort of the resorts and into the small poorly equipped, and often impoverished towns and villages, the pressure on the government to address the issues builds.

“Screwing up tourism is like killing the layer of the golden egg. There is so much pressure on the government to solve problems like Thilafushi. It’s such bad publicity. You would think they would do something about it,” says Ali, with a resigned shrug.