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MALDIVES: Mining ‘Smoking Mountain’ of Rubbish for Energy

Feizal Samath

MALÉ, Jun 15 2011 (IPS) - Most visitors to the Maldives – a string of islands southwest of Sri Lanka – won’t miss the so-called “smoking mountain” made from local residents’ trash as well as the garbage tourists leave behind in resorts nearby.

Thilafushi Island, also known as “Rubbish Island” located a few kilometres off the capital of Malé, is an eyesore that emits toxic fumes from tonnes of garbage dumped there every day. But in late May the government found a way to make something out of the trash, and signed an agreement with an Indo- German company to manage the waste and reuse it as energy.

The project, backed by the World Bank affiliate International Finance Corporation (IFC), will generate power from recycling waste in two years.

“That will not only get rid of the toxicity but also generate renewable energy at a time when we need projects like this,” says Maldivian environmentalist Ali Rizwan, whose nongovernment organisation Blue Peace has dubbed the garbage island the “toxic bomb in the Indian Ocean.”

Waste management in the more than 200 populated islands in the Maldives – an archipelago of 1,200 islands – is a serious problem, like in many island states.

In 1992, the government built Thilafushi as an artificial island to serve as a landfill for Malé’s refuse, but dozens of tourist resorts began sending their rubbish to the island as well. Soon the site became a mountain of garbage easily recognisable by the smoke billowing out.

The rubbish includes used batteries, asbestos, lead and other potentially hazardous waste, and mixed with the municipal solid waste, it is becoming an increasingly serious ecological and health problem, Blue Peace said.

Close to 800,000 tourists visited the Maldives last year, slightly more than neighbouring Sri Lanka, which has a much larger population of 20 million compared to the Maldives’ 370,000. According to current estimates, a tourist on a resort generates 7.5 kg of waste per day, double what a Malé resident produces.

“The resorts are not helping at all. There is little waste management done except in a few places,” Rizwan said in a telephone interview, citing his own experience on Saturday visiting a far-away island inhabited by local people.

There, he said, he found loads of empty plastic cans and coca cola bottles swept ashore from resorts. “This is a common occurrence in the Maldives. Tourism promoters and resorts must seriously take note of this issue and help the government sort out this problem,” he said. “You can’t expect the government to do everything. The private sector should also help.”

Two years ago, the government wanted to introduce a “green tax” to help reduce tourism’s adverse environmental impact. But plans changed in January after a series of new taxes were introduced on resorts and business to raise much needed revenue for the cash-strapped government.

The IFC-backed private-public partnership project on waste management will “introduce best practices and standards in waste management to improve waste disposal at Thilafushi and other islands in Greater Malé,” according to an IFC statement.

Signed by the government and the Indo-German Tatva Global Renewable Energy (Maldives) Private Limited, the project will mobilise up to 50 million dollars in private investments, and help reduce greenhouse gases by nearly 12,000 tonnes annually, the IFC added.

The Maldives has been pushing for a greener economy and has been leading efforts to minimise global warming, as it faces the threat of rising sea levels. Some 80 percent of its islands are just about a metre above sea level, except for Malé, which is surrounded by a three-metre high wall. The islands, experts say, could go under in 100 years.

For Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam, the rising sea level is a major challenge but currently not the biggest one. “The shifting of the islands when the sea level rises is a more complex issue,” he said in a recent interview with IPS in Malé.

Meanwhile, Tourism Minister Mariyam Zulfa said the government recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the non-profit Swiss group myclimate, to help prepare a strategy for voluntary carbon offsetting measures.

“We will be looking at things like developing a model eco-island as a resort of the future,” she said. “We are working on the carbon footprint. While the airlines will look after themselves, the resorts are also looking at renewable energy for most of their needs.”

But the biggest challenge, she pointed out, is the diesel that goes into generators that are used by all resorts, since solar power as an alternative would involve a large investment. Finding an alternative to fossil fuel for sea transport is also a dilemma as the next option, rechargeable batteries, is costly.

The government has put in place a plan to be carbon neutral by 2020 and is urging industry, mainly tourism, to resort to low-carbon refrigerators and air conditioners through ozone- and climate-friendly technology. A two-day road show in Malé last month showcased such technologies by American, Chinese, Japanese and Western European companies.

The government is also working with India-based Suzilon, one of the world’s largest windmill turbine producers, to use wind power technology in state utilities across the islands.

A young environmentalist who declined to be named told IPS that she didn’t see significant changes towards a greener economy. “Maybe they are doing something and the public is not well informed. Most of us do think government efforts are all for good public relations. But I still feel this government is doing more about it than the previous one,” she added.

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