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Tragedy of the Maldives

Of fleeting paradise, enduring world power and a great sense of responsibility

Rae Munavvar
24 September 2019, MVT 11:16
The toxic fumes of Thilafushi plummet above beyond Villimale, as they prepare to envelop the island's western beach. On the opposite (undepicted side, lies the 'island' of Male, the heart of Male' City area. Villimale, the island least contributing to pollution in the vicinity, is sandwiched between two developed giants in a disturbing physical metaphor of the dilemma the country faces on the global scale. Maldives, one of the most vulnerable nations, least responsible for climate change, is set to face the crisis' first wave of repercussions while industrial giants remain in denial. PHOTO: CONTRIBUTING ARTIST
At one side of Villimale' lies the 'island' of Male, the heart of Male' City area. From the other (undepicted side) wafts toxic fumes from Thilafushi the garbage island. Villimale, the island least contributing to pollution in the vicinity, is sandwiched between two developed giants in a disturbing physical metaphor of the dilemma the country faces on the global scale. Maldives, one of the most vulnerable nations, least responsible for climate change, is set to face the crisis' first wave of repercussions while industrial giants remain in denial. PHOTO: CONTRIBUTING ARTIST
Tragedy of the Maldives. IMAGE: JAUNA NAFIZ / THE EDITION
Rae Munavvar
24 September 2019, MVT 11:16

People often describe the beauty of island life as being a ‘simple’ one. Not sure what that means? Humour us and take a moment to imagine cycling along sandy roads, under ‘ruhgandu’ canopies along ‘dhigga’ lined paths, all the while munching on ‘kunnaaru’ as a gentle sea breeze ruffles through your hair. Too idyllic a picture for some city folk maybe, but a calming thought, one must admit.

Yet this typical island-lifestyle is incredibly well-preserved on the island of Villingili, despite its close proximity to Male’, the capital city. In Villimale’, as it is now known, native vegetation thrives, towering buildings are scarce and the only natural beaches in the greater Male’ region are found for all to enjoy. Apart from the police, the ambulance, construction companies and a few other permit holders, all residents use battery-powered cycles and buggies, ride bicycles or simply walk to get around. Thanks to shared gardens that grow fruit and vegetables, conscious involvement of differently-abled people, a strong presence of charitable organisations that hold regular activities including cleanups and more - the sense of community felt here is strong, and the ethos is largely towards a lifestyle that causes less harm and inspires positivity.

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Aerial view of Male city, The concrete Jungle, Welcome to the Maldives' concrete jungle blogger, Tom Smith, didn't expect to find urban excitement in the Maldives. But he's glad he did. When you think about the Maldives, what kind of images come into your head? White sandy beaches, pristine coral reefs, tranquil deserted islands possibly? Not quite, so far. I arrived late last night, on a surprisingly large aeroplane which stopped off on its way to Dubai. Instead of a taxi rank, the airport frontage was lined with a ‘luxury yacht rank’ as the airport is on it’s own island, one of 1,192 that make up the Maldives. Ever the frugal traveller, I opted for the local ferry shuttle to the capital island, Male.

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Although now formally categorised as a district of the capital city, Villimale’ stands in stark contrast to the bustling streets of Male’. Barely any room for green, the crowded pathways are instead lined by motorcycles and scooters dusted with a noticeable layer of smut. Trapped within a barricade of shiny buildings, a cloud of smog has taken up residence over a city which, thanks to thousands and thousands of bright twinkling lights - seems never to sleep. Little grows here, apart from that which stems from concrete. It is the epicentre of business and progress but one glance at a picture taken just two decades ago, and even to the untrained eye there has been an undeniable, obvious cost.

Similarly, (for the benefit of our foreign readers) the reclaimed suburb Hulhumale’ stands adjacent to the island of Hulhule’ which houses Velana International Airport and is the capital’s other district, separated by sea. It stands upon a graveyard of coral, broken down to form its roads and barriers. The tarred roads make for a pleasant drive especially if your journey begins at Henveiru around sunrise. However, in the unforgiving light of the midday sun, the devastation all these concrete creations stand upon is not easy to ignore; the azure waves that lap against the beach possess a rather murky quality, vegetation decidedly unnatural in many parts and the smooth black roads seem more concentrated on accumulating heat than accommodating your wheels.

All three share resources but being larger islands, both Hulhumale’ and Male’ offer access to advanced education, healthcare, retail needs, and other consumables but comparatively, suffice to say Villimale’ is far less of a burden in terms of either non -renewable energy, water or food.

None of this compares, however, to the neighbouring existence of Thilafushi; the infamous artificial island formed entirely out of trash, garbage collected mostly from patrons living in the districts of Hulhumale’, Male’ and Villimale’ - the population of Male’ City. While it may be laughable that such an island exists among ‘paradise on earth’, there is very little that is funny about the consequences this ‘solution’ for the city’s disposal problem has wrought on the atoll’s delicate ecosystem.

“We collect trash three times a day from our beaches, none of which are thrown by our staff or guests - it breaks away and floats to us,'' complained a resort worker, employed at one of the many resorts within the city’s vicinity.

“We don’t fish anywhere close to the area any more,'' said a local fisherman, based in Hulhumale’. He now travels with his crew to the outermost corners to the atoll where they believe the pollution does not reach.

“During our home visits to people in Villimale’, many citizens complained having illnesses and difficulties breathing due to smoke from the rubbish dump as well as Thilafushi”, observed an allied health professional, working in the island.

“One of the biggest challenges we face while trying to protect the beaches of Villimale’ is that we are located between Male’ and Thilafushi. Maldives has two monsoons, and during the westerly season, all the smoke from Thilafushi hits Villimale’ and the West of Male’. I moved to Villimale’ 20 years ago, and to this day the situation is the same. The region still burns its garbage, exposing our environment to huge amounts of carbon emissions; polluting our habitat and the air we breathe,” offered Hassan Ahmed (Beybe), Founder and President of Save The Beach Maldives, an environmental NGO that has been working to protect and preserve the beaches and coral reefs of Maldives since its formation in 2008.

Adding to the issue is an ongoing debate over the reclamation of ‘Gulhi Falhu’ the lagoon between Villimale’ and Thilafushi. The second phase of the project was launched in 2011 by former President Mohamed Nasheed. It was taken up once more during former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom time in office and later became a cornerstone of his 2018 election campaign.

Incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s administration signed an agreement with a Singaporean development company this September under a budget of USD 650,000 (MVR 10 million) for a period of eight months, although the ministry spokesperson disclosed that the budget for compiling the Gulhifalhu masterplan is yet to be finalised and approved.

Second phase of the project was planned to involve a 40 - 230 hectare land reclamation depending on the President, which was then to become grounds for the development of a residential area said to feature either 12,500 or 18,000 housing units, former and latter pledges being Nasheed and Yameen’s respective vows. In addition to necessary utilities and municipal services, the ‘new land’ is meant to be connected to Villimale’ via bridge. Minister of National Planning and Infrastructure Mohamed Aslam revealed in June that efforts are underway to commence the bridge construction connecting Villimale'-Gulhifalhu-Thilafushi before the end of the year. Discussion concerning the development of a further bridge from Villimale’ to Male’ to alleviate the ‘10-minute’ ferry journey is also on the table.

Aerial of Male' - Villimale' and GulhiFalhu; this area is planned to be connected by bridge.

Should a bridge connecting Male’, Villimale’, Gulhifalhu and Thilafushi materialize, the days of Villimale’ being vehicular noise and fume free will come to a certain end. It will also erode the beaches, and impact the reef in a way that experts unanimously agree, no EIA-mandated mitigation measure can possibly prevent. However, with a new artificial island boasting tall buildings placed midst Villimale and Thilafushi, perhaps the issue of smoke will be lessened. The same of course cannot be said for future ‘Gulhifalhu-esque’ residents.

It should be of serious concern to all Male’ region constituents, however, that thus far neither faction, has paid more than lip service to the pollution erupting from Thilafushi. This is true of the current administration as well. At least to this researcher, development under current circumstances seems ill-advised, if not completely disastrous.

The last thing the populace needs, though desperately requiring a housing solution, is a greenwashed proposal for the development of a ‘ghetto’ area directly facing cancer-inducing fumes and the construction of a bridge that will absolutely impact the last remnants of naturality in the greater Male’ area.

Desperately unfortunate, isn’t it? Such a self-sustaining island, one that should be hailed across the archipelago if not the world, as an example illustrating how a community can successfully reduce its carbon footprint, finds itself in the middle, literally and figuratively, of the effect and impact of pollution created from larger hubs and far more industrial areas.

So now, as one cycles along Villimale’s clean green roads, if it happens to be during the monsoon season, long-time resident Mohamed Shihab says you’re more than likely to be confronted by “a foul smell from the smoke produced by garbage mountains, bad enough to cover your nose!”

Shihab, who is also Chief Volunteer at Villijoali - a volunteer initiative geared towards building an inclusive, resilient, caring community in the island, stated their belief that the smoke has an effect on the rain and also increases diseases.

“People complain in vain, on the streets. There is no agency that takes responsibility,” said Shihab.

To better illustrate the issue, consider this fact. Last December, Maldives’ Waste Management Corporation (WAMCO) reported that their nationwide cleanup collected a total of 195 tonnes of garbage from the combined districts of Male’, Hulhumale’ and Vilimale’. However, only 11% was attributed to Villimale’ - and this was just a simple litter roundup from public areas.

Unfortunately, WAMCO has not publicised clearer statistics on the waste produced from the district, as opposed to the region, nor data on waste collected monthly and annually in specific areas. Nevertheless, based on the cleanliness alone, compared to sister islands, it seems safe to presume that Villimale’ is the least contributor of the three.

According to a report published by The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in 2005, approximately 31,000 truckloads of garbage were transported to Thilafushi from Male’ and surrounding islands since 1991, where it was dumped in large piles and eventually used to reclaim land and increase the size of the island.

A few years later in 2009, The Guardian reported local environmentalists claiming more than 330 tonnes of rubbish were brought to Thilafushi daily and mostly from Male’. Considering the city is recognized as one of the most densely populated cities in the world (and what a fantastic trophy at that), it seems fair to assume that a decade later, with no known additional reductional measures in place and population surges, the number would only have increased - that in turn signals a frightening amount of combustion taking place.

It is with no small amount of optimism that this writer presumes those reading to this point have accrued some interest and have come to empathise with the plight of ‘Villimale’-ians’. The real crux of the problem, however, is the dangerous picture this paints between island nations like the Maldives and the rest of the planet. Uncanny, one might call the resemblance.

The most low-lying country in the world, and one of the lowest contributors to global warming, is at the very forefront of resultant climate change, set to experience the first signs of the devastation that scientists have unanimously confirmed will inevitably follow in the years to come.

A tragedy of the commons, many have called it. While all humans share this little blue rock and its many resources, comparatively minuscule ‘urban’ populations of the world are responsible for the rapid depletion and grand-scale pollution, both of which affect rural communities at a far greater magnitude.

Even if the repercussions are set to affect island nations first, it is beyond doubt, a world-wide issue. Flashback to 2010, when the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC confirmed that climate change was, at the time, already affecting people, ecosystems and livelihoods all around the world, adding that while limiting warming to 1.5ºC was “possible”, it would require “unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society”.

It also goes on to state that the international commitments outlined within the Paris Agreement were not entirely consistent with maintaining temperatures well below 2°C, suggesting that without urgent mitigation measures that pull greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, global warming is set to surpass 1.5°C in the following decades, which would inevitably lead to the demise of ecosystems like that of our fragile Villimale’, and in fact, numerous archipelagoes just like the Maldives.

The parallel, if one requires further clarification, lies in the way that larger, industrial nations have not just failed to meet the goals in reducing global emissions as indicated by the Paris Agreement - the European Union, the United States of America, India and China have all recorded an increase in emissions as well as the use of natural gas and oil.

According to the World Resources Institute, following a decline from 2014 to 2016, in the years 2017 and 2018 the EU recorded a fall of only 0.7 in carbon emissions. Since 2012, oil use in the EU has increased by 0.4 percent per year as reliance on vehicles rose throughout the region. In summation, although certain reductions (mostly attributed to a cessation in the use of coal) has seen a slight decline, it is nowhere near the mark.

“Maldivians must fight for global mitigation measures because we are facing consequences from problems that we hardly contribute to,'' said Sharafulla Thoha Hussain, a technician at Maldives Climate Observatory based in Hanimaadhoo Island, Haa Alif Atoll (MCOH).

Established in 1998, the Observatory acts as South Asia’s key background site for atmospheric and climate studies, collecting scientific data referenced in university journals around the world. Sharafulla further adds, “Our research shows Maldives is being affected by pollution across the South Asian subcontinent. We have advised as such to local and international experts alike.”

Returning to our original analogy, these statistics demonstrate the standing of Maldives and similar island nations, versus the rest of the world - similar to the virtually fume-free Villimale’ and its decidedly less eco-conscious inter-atoll counterparts.

To be fair, however, one must also note that those in Villimale’ are not the only victims of Thilafushi’s hazardous practices. The Hanimadhoo Edition of the Environment Ministry’s ‘Pemphis’ newsletter attributes 50% of the total carbon loadings over Malé to local emissions from incomplete combustion and adds that high levels were observed during westerly winds, possibly influenced from Thilafushi.

During hazy times Male’s city dwellers have taken to Twitter iterating the same complaint. As the years go on, the damage only spreads, but those in Villimale’ are facing the brunt of these repercussions.

And therein lies the deadliest truth.

Far away as the reality of Villimale’ and Maldives may seem to be, and as easy as it may be to feel sympathy for Villimale’-ians, and blame the city folk for ruining their best efforts to live an eco-friendly sustainable lifestyle - consider this.

Does the reader sitting comfortably in the west, sipping a drink in a single-use container, driving a high powered vehicle to work, surrounded in every avenue byproducts being made at a low cost to the supplier and a high cost to the environment, truly feel the gravity of the decisions their government has made, and what fate they have as such determined for these island-dwellers?

Countries like the Maldives which contribute to a very small percentage of the problem, even collectively, are already being heavily impacted by the ‘planetary’ consequences. It is a worldwide responsibility, that only small states are currently being taxed for, but we will soon all pay the price.

If the coral reefs die, the oceans die, and when the oceans die, it doesn’t matter how far you are placed from the tropics - there will be no oxygen to breathe. The apocalyptic deserts we see in fantasy movies will become a reality in our very lifetimes.

Before that happens, and to afford all of us more time to adapt, change and reverse the damage - larger nations need to take a more active role.

Thanks largely to constant social media-applied pressure, this issue has now become one of great concern to many Maldivians.

“There are simple things we could all do. Villimale’ pushed the initiative to become an environment-friendly island. We rely on solar power for 30 percent of our energy needs and have a limitation on vehicles with greater dependency on battery-powered vehicles. We are the only island in the Maldives which such regulation and we are situated just next to the capital city”, points out STB’s Beybe.

“What I’m saying is, why can’t this model be replicated? In fact, can't it be done even better? Surely, these tiny islands with small populations can begin replacing fuel-guzzling vehicles with renewable means today itself. There are so many things we could do to reduce our carbon footprint and to raise individual awareness.”

Beybe paints a best-case scenario, where the nation successfully adapts the Villimale-ian example across the archipelago, rather than forcing comparatively more sustainable communities to change to accommodate what can be described as the city’s more nefarious attitude towards the environment. The polar worst, of course, is a situation where islands like Villimale’ become forced to replicate Male’, abandoning the last few ties to our traditional way of life.

Hope arose, if only momentarily, when the country headed to the polls in 2018 and elected President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and his coalition government, following a campaign that ran on promises of a ‘blue economy’ that prioritised climate adaptation, mitigation measures and an overall move towards sustainability. Whether his administration will fulfil these ambitions remains to be seen.

Thus far, the bleakness of the situation hasn’t much improved. The only waste “solution” in place continues to be outdoor burning. The most pertinent first step would be to properly segregate and manage waste. Perhaps next, to invest and implement clean energy, zero-emission alternatives for the elimination of waste in a more sustainable manner. Consider, for instance, Tokyo’s Shinagawa Incineration Plant which employs state of the art technology to break down non-recyclable burnable waste to ash, and convert the heat generated to usable energy. Although foreign sources claim solutions have been offered at discounted rates to the public, and administrative leadership have continuously pledged to resolve this matter, no significant movement has been thus far recorded.

Experts state that the most meaningful way to approach the matter is by involving communities, that is, to raise awareness and instil the values of reducing, reusing and recycling. It stands to reason that, long term, this above all would alleviate the nation’s rapidly growing burden of waste.

Statistics on Thilafushi. IMAGE: JAUNA NAFIZ / THE EDITION

Regardless of Maldivian politics, if there is no unity in the cause between island nations and the rest of the world, the point, as we discussed before, is moot. Global discourse about climate change needs to gain more traction and in the right way - not simply on the subject of reducing certain types of waste but in terms of pressuring decision-makers to further reduce carbon emissions. Voters around the world need to push their leaders to take the right steps for the greater good of all. The Maldives and other island nations are in a state of climate emergency - one that was caused by the human race.

The pressing question then becomes, how long will the rest of the world stand by while island states take the fall?

Glossary: Ruhgandu refers to a patch of coconut palms, whereas Kunnaru is the local name for Jujube Fruit and Dhiggaa is the Sea Hibiscus Tree.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article was first published in the German Magazine KULTURAUSTAUSCH 4/2019 , which proceeded to print in September. However, the writing has since been modified to suit The Edition's particular audiences.

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