For me, it was a dream come true to be stationed in beautiful Maldives – with its small pearly islands enclosed by shining white beaches, and surrounded by waters in multiple shades of blue. As the days went by, however, my first impression of this pristine paradise started to look murkier.
On my second day in Malé, I was taking a walk in the city. Around the jetty, I saw lots of plastic bottles and packets floating amidst the clear turquoise waters. My alarm only increased as I visited other islands. Most of the inhabited islands stood in sad contrast to Maldives’ world-famous resorts. Along their white sandy shores, and around their little lanes, were heaps of garbage; piles of plastic bottles, nappies, tin cans, food packaging… you name it.
As someone who is very fond the ocean, I am most disturbed by marine litter and the impact it is having on the ocean’s ecosystems. Just the other day, I read via the Olive Ridley Project, about a huge, discarded fishing net entangling several sea turtles. While being a photogenic and iconic species admired by divers, sea turtles also play an important role in our environment. They help in sustaining beach vegetation by transporting essential nutrients from the oceans to beaches and the coastal dunes. Turtles are among the natural actors that can help prevent issues such as beach erosion – a severe problem faced by the small islands of the Maldives. An increase in garbage is not only tainting this pristine beauty, but is also compromising an already fragile natural environment.
I’ve heard that garbage was once organic here, mostly coconut scraps, fish bones and other natural items that decomposed quickly. In the more prosperous Maldives today, waste is made up of plastic, tin cans, and hazardous materials. Like in other countries, the socioeconomic developments of the past few decades, coupled with millions of visitors, a growing population and changing lifestyles, have led to unsustainable consumption patterns.
Every day, an estimated 860 metric tons of solid waste is discarded in the country, equivalent to the weight of about four Blue Whales! According to Shaahina Ali, an environmental advocate, close to 280,000 plastic bottles are used every day in the capital city of Malé alone. They end up in landfills or thrown somewhere, with very few recycled.
I could not just be a casual bystander as the garbage situation escalates here. On a few occasions, together with my husband, I joined my UNDP colleagues to volunteer for clean-up efforts led by NGOs, like Save the Beach Maldives. They conduct many cleaning and conservation events across the country. A waste audit after a clean-up exercise of Villimalé beach showed that over 8,300 kilos of waste accumulate on Villimalé beach per year – about the weight of two Asian Elephants!
I see hope. Awareness of the waste issue is slowly, yet steadily rising. Local initiatives, such as those of Project Damage Control’s, to clean and patrol the beaches, and to prevent waste dumping are slowly becoming the norm. These efforts are often led by passionate individuals, groups and even private sector partners.
It was inspiring to learn that staff of Dhiraagu have stopped using non-recyclable plastic bottles completely within their workplace. Campaigns like Dhiraagu’s “For the Oceans” – to encourage reusable bags as a substitute for disposable plastic bags, is very much needed here.
Similarly, the islands of Alif Alif Bodufolhudhoo and Ukulhas, and Vaavu Keyodhoo have also taken the initiative to ban single-use plastic bags under the “Ban the Bags” campaign initiated by Maldives Getaways. On a similar track is the government’s “Saafu Raajje” (Clean Maldives) awareness campaign, which UNDP is proud to support. With funding from the Government of Denmark, we are also working with the Government to establish a waste management programme in the 11 inhabited islands of Laamu Atoll. This will include setting up waste management centres, awareness raising initiatives, and replicating other best practices.
It will take more than singular campaigns or initiatives to keep this paradise pristine. It has to start within each one of us. In Japan, where I come from, we have a practice of cleaning in and around our houses in time to prepare for the New Year. I was happy to learn that a similar practice, ‘roadha ah thayyaaru vun’, happens here right before Ramadan, – which includes a house cleaning in the lead up to the holy month. This is a wonderful pre-fasting tradition. It is also a chance to not simply throw away, but ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’ what we can.
Let’s start within our homes. Let’s take it to our streets and to our oceans. Let’s ask ourselves, “What do we want to leave for our future generations? A tainted or a pristine paradise?”
Shoko Noda is the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in the Maldives. She has previously worked in Nepal, Mongolia, Pakistan, DRC, New York, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and Tajikistan. She is a passionate advocate on gender, climate change, disaster risk reduction and peacebuilding.
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