Thilafushi: The Island made entirely of Trash

The Maldives is an archipelago, an extensive group of islands, located in the Indian Ocean, that spans across the equator. While very little is known about the history of Maldives, historians and scholars believe that the Maldives is an old nation populated well over 2500 years ago. The country comprises of 1192 islands that stretch along a length of 871 kilometres and so moving trash from one place to another is a challenge. Without many alternative options at hand, the Maldives came up with a plan to reclaim and existing lagoon.

Thilafushi

Also Read: See the Island in Maldives made entirely of trash

Thilafushi’s Origin

The Maldives despite being one of the most beautiful places, is most threatened by climate change, as about 80% of the island nation site 3.3 feet (1 meter) below sea level rise. Ironically, the highest spot above sea level in the country is made out of trash in an enormous man-made lagoon landfill called Thilafushi. Located 7 km from the country’s capital city, Malé, Thilafushi, an artificial island, began life as a reclamation project in the early 1990s. In 1991, the Maldivian government transformed the Thilafushi, previously known as Thilafalhu, into a landfill. The artificial island was built to solve the problem of waste created by tourism.

Heaps of Garbage

Today, the human-made island spans over 124 acres of land with the amount of deposited trash increasing at a square meter a day ever since its creation. Thilafushi acts as a waste dump for all of the Maldives and is located next to the country’s capital city, Malé. In Maldives, an average of 330 tons of waste is generated daily with 3.5 kg of waste being contributed everyday by a single tourist. The number of tourists is increasing in the country which is posing more problems to the scenario. In 2019, the number was almost 2 million. According to environmentalists, more than 300 tonnes of waste is brought to Thilafushi each and every day which is simply poured into holes and covered with sand, going through no treatment, sorting or other maintenance.

Nature at risk

The majority of Thilfushi’s trash ends up in its landfill, while the remaining is incinerated. With more tourists flocking to the island, the waste has piled so high that it causes ever-smouldering fires, which spark methane built up in all the trash enveloping Malé and neighboring islands in smoke. Tourism and trash accumulation numbers are rising together as they are directly proportional and as a result, threats to water quality are increasing too. However, the increasing amount of solid waste or trash is not the only alarming change for this artificial island, electronic waste quantities are growing too, complicating the safety of their disposal system and implications for water quality further. Toxic components of waste hazardous items such as batteries, lead, heavy metals, etc. pose a significant risk of water contamination as well. Moreover, Leachate, a by-product of municipal waste pollutes the soil and groundwater, affecting water often used in desalination procedures.

Turning Sustainable

After 30 years of dumping solid waste, the Maldives is now investing in a more sustainable waste management system to reduce emissions, improve resilience and protect local fishing and tourism industry. There is a strong acknowledgment of the problem and of past mistakes among decision makers. At Thilafushi, the years of neglect are being addressed directly and openly. In 2018, the government enacted a clean-up project for the island which provides a new waste removal method, enhanced waste management, and new trash collection locations on various islands. In addition, upgradation of infrastructure and new and unique waste transfer containers help improve transport safety to the Thilafushi island.

These islands suffer from a shortage of fresh drinking water, a situation exacerbated by climate change which has resulted in the increased reliance on bottled water, the remains of which litter the landscape. With an infrastructure strategy falling into place, the government is also in the process of enacting some of the most ambitious plastic legislation in the world. The import of many common single-use plastics is already banned and a legislative amendment to ban the production of such plastics in the Maldives is expected to come into effect in June. The country also wants to phase out all single-use plastics by 2030. These targets will be assisted by a program called Plastic Drawdown, a rapid assessment tool developed by international experts, including scientists. It helps stakeholders work out how plastics are getting into the environment and the types of policies that could be effective to prevent that.

Moreover, the greater Malé region is implementing a two-phased project stretching to 2026. The project is financed through a combination of grants and loans from ADB, as well as government financing and a special fund of $10 million from the Japan Fund for Joint Credit Mechanism (JFJCM) to incentivize low-carbon investments. While adopting more sustainable waste management practices to improve public health, the project will also reportedly reduce ocean pollution and positively impact the tourism and fishery sectors, two cornerstones of the Maldives’ economy. Biodigesters are meant to be installed to handle organic waste, simple infrastructure will enable local authorities to sort their waste and collection will be covered by purpose-built vessels operating out of Thilafushi.

Improvement efforts are not limited to trash disposal only. The Maldives is largely dependent upon tourism for income. Because of this, pollution from tourism is unavoidable. To confront the issue, the government partnered with a power company to construct desalination plants across the Maldives. The construction of these plants would mean dependable access to clean water for residents, and it would promote the inclusion of reusable containers. All of this together would allow the Maldives to confront both waste and water quality issues.

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