By: Graham Land

The Republic of the Maldives is the smallest country in Asia, both by landmass and population. It is also the country with the lowest elevation on Earth, rising to only 1.5 meters above sea level and under rising threat from climate change. 

In 2012 President Mohamed Nasheed called his country the third most at risk from flooding due to climate change, even stating that, “If carbon emissions continue at the rate they are climbing today, my country will be underwater in seven years.”

While Nasheed’s predictions may sound extreme, there are legitimate concerns about the Maldives’ future. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that most of the 200-some islands that make up the Maldives will need to be abandoned by 2100. It seems like it may be too late to slow climate change in time for the survival of this tourist paradise and there are plans to buy up land in other Asian-Pacific countries for future climate refugees from the Maldives.

Praised as a pristine eco-destination and a nation that is abandoning fossil fuels (as well as a symbol for what the world is losing through burning them) the Maldives stands on figurative high ground if not literally so. It is also a diver’s paradise where one can spot the illusive and rare whale shark, with some of the cleanest waters anywhere. It has become a tourism paradise, with an average temperature of 25C all year long.  Environmental tourism has exploded, with biosphere expeditions and a closely monitored plan to protect marine life and the exquisite black coral, giant clams, conch shells and seagoing turtles. 

Yet there is a dirty secret that has helped to keep most of the Maldives clean, pristine and litter free. It is Thilafushi, a manmade island of rubbish — a landfill in paradise, overflowing with floating plastic waste. It is estimated that around 330 tons of garbage are brought to Thilafushi daily — so much that the island is physically expanding by about one square meter with each new day. 

The hazardous waste that is mixed in with the regular rubbish in the landfill has led to Thilafushi being described by local environmentalists as a “toxic bomb,“ with at least part of the problem stemming from the fact that impatient waste shippers don’t wait around to dispose of their cargo safely but merely dump it onto the beach

The original plan was to dig pits of roughly 1,000 sq meters, after which the sand obtained was used to build walled enclosures around the pits. Waster was dumped ito the pit, topped with construction debris and leveled with white sand. Initially there was no attempt to segregate the waste to isolate potentially poisonous elements. 

“Thilafushi lagoon fill, with used batteries, asbestos, lead and other potentially hazardous waste mixed with the municipal solid wastes, is an increasingly serious ecological and health problem in the Maldives,” said the Maldives environmental activist group Bluepeace. “Even though batteries and e-waste are quite a small fraction of municipal waste disposed at the Thilafushi, they are a concerted source of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium. Chemicals can leach out into water table or sea and endanger the surrounding sea The decision to turn what had previously been Thilafailhu Lagoon into Thilafushi landfill was made in 2001 by the Maldives government after discussions on what to do with the rubbish from the principle Maldives city of Male, population 105,000.  It is estimated that 31,000 truckloads are transported to the trash island annually, where it is dumped and used in what environmentalists say is  a disastrous method of reclaiming land and to increasethe island’s size.  

“According to official statistics, a single tourist produces 3.5kg of garbage a day, twice as much as someone from Malé and five times more than anyone from the rest of the Maldives archipelago,” according to Wikipedia. Altogether, that comes to “300 to 400 tons of trash” dumped on the island every day, according to Shina Ahmed, administration manager of the Thilafushi Corporation that runs the island.

There appears little about the decision to fill the lagoon with toxic debris that was well thought out or anything short of calamitous.  In 2011, the  Malé City Council temporarily banned the transporting of waste to Thilafushi because of a surge in waste floating in the island’s lagoon and drifting out to sea. The cause of the floating waste has been blamed on “impatient” boat captains unable to unload their waste.

In a BBC report in May 2012, the island of waste was described as “apocalyptic”. 

Filmmaker Alison Teal has made a documentary about her time in the Maldives, including footage of her riding her surfboard through piles of floating plastic garbage. Check out some remarkable photos of Alison’s trip to the garbage island here. You can also view another documentary of the waste problem in the Maldives by clicking here.

Graham Land blogs for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement. With additional reporting by Asia Sentinel