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The Maldives: Dealing with MSW in paradise

The Maldives is a vast archipelago in the Indian Ocean. It is sparsely populated, having less than half a million people. Income per person is relatively high, estimated by the IMF at US$14,571 in 2019. This level of income has been attained rapidly over the past couple of decades, and is almost entirely due to the growth of tourism.

This rapid growth has given the Maldives a municipal waste problem, as tourism and rising income levels have led to more waste being generated. Additionally, more of that waste comprises plastics, metals and hazardous materials, and is therefore harder to deal with. To this can be added the country’s geography. Large numbers of small widely-dispersed islands present a quite different challenge to, say, a single large city. As we have seen in other developing parts of the world, there is simply no infrastructure to deal with this.

As a response, Thilafushi, a coral atoll, was designated as a landfill island as long ago as 1992, although most of its growth has taken place in the past decade. It takes anywhere between 300 and 800 tonnes per day of waste (statistics are scarce and reports contradictory). This is supposed to be sorted and sent to different areas of the island, although uncontrolled dumping and burning seems to be the norm in practice. The volume of waste has become too large to be properly accommodated, and much leaks back into the surrounding waters. This naturally matters on environmental grounds, and even more so since Thilafushi is only a few kilometres from Malé, the main island and capital of the Maldives.

maldivesSource: Bing Maps. Click here for the precise location online.

The two photographs below show Thilafushi in 2005 and 2019. The southern part has been greatly extended by the landfill site as the volume of waste creeps around the lagoon.

googleearth googleearth2Source: Google Earth Pro

Thilafushi was intended to solve the Maldives’ waste problem, but its inadequacy has become a scandal in itself. The Maldives’ government, spurred by environmental pressures and the need to preserve the country’s reputation as a tourist paradise, has made fitful efforts to improve the situation. Management of the island has, in theory, improved with the creation of Waste Management Corporation Limited (WAMCO) with a mandate to provide a sustainable waste management solution throughout the country. In January 2016, WAMCO officially took over waste management for Malé region. This includes the daily transfer of waste from Malé to Thilafushi and the resulting disposal of waste there.

Greater use of WtE incineration has been the preferred means of alleviating the problem, although until recently little had been achieved, with various plans coming and going without success. In September 2019, the government announced that three small incinerators currently based on Thilafushi will be dismantled and rebuilt on islands on other parts of the country. These are tiny, with daily capacity of four tonnes each, and would appear to be part of a move to dispose of waste in situ rather than ship it to Thilafushi, which will of course lose incineration capacity in the meantime. The move should be completed in early 2022.

The move anticipates a more significant development for Thilafushi, which is the construction of a proper WtE facility there. On 23rd May 2019, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) issued a General Procurement Notice for the Greater Malé Waste to Energy Project. The Ministry of Finance, on behalf of Ministry of Environment, has published an Invitation for Prequalification for sealed bids to design, build and operate a waste-to-energy facility at K. Thilafushi (Reference Number: (IUL)13-K/13/2019/148, Project Number: TES/2019/W-073). The deadline for submission of applications was extended from 18th July to 4th August 2019. This contract will be jointly financed by the ADB, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Japan Fund for Joint Crediting Mechanism. It is expected that the Invitation for Bids will be made in November 2019. Details on the scope of the project are currently not available, but its progress can be tracked on the ADB website here.

2019 has also begun to see some positive developments elsewhere. On 22nd July 2019, the Maldives began generating energy from waste for the first time, through a facility opened in Vandhoo, Raa Atoll. Funded via concessional loan assistance from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the Vandhoo Regional Waste Management Centre was established in order to manage waste from the Atolls of Noonu, Raa, Baa and Lhaviyani.

 

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