Tsunami leaves garbage problems for atoll nation

Published: 2 May 2005 0:00 CET

Lena Eskeland in the Maldives

Most visitors to the Maldives only get to see idyllic white sand beaches on beautiful resort islands surrounded by sparkling azure seas.

However the scattered atoll nation faces a major challenge to process waste, exacerbated by the 26 December tsunami – a challenge the International Federation is helping the local population to meet.

According to the UN Environment Programme, the tsunami created an estimated 290,000 cubic meters of waste. While the authorities and communities have cleared away debris, much of it has so far only been pushed to one side. It still has to be properly disposed of.

Even before the tsunami, the Maldives faced serious difficulties in disposing of its waste in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way.

The Maldives is made up of hundreds of mostly tiny islands in atoll groups. Land is scarce and the sea has been used as a dumping ground for the ever-increasing supply of rubbish and waste.

Garbage ‘mountains’

Federation water and sanitation delegate Selina Chan is on her way to Thilafushi, one of the country’s garbage islands. In addition to other programmes, a positive spin-off from the tsunami is the Federations’ plans to improve the Maldives rubbish management systems.

Chan says the challenges faced are significant: “This includes oil barrels, asbestos and rusting building materials which leaches into the ground water,” she says.

The Federation waste management programme aims not only clean up the tsunami debris, but establish long term solid waste disposal in the country.

Thilafushi has been one of the Maldives’ three regional garbage islands since 1991, taking refuse from the capital Male and surrounding islands. Every year, 31,000 truckloads of garbage are transported to Thilafushi, where it is dumped in large piles and eventually used to reclaim land and increase the size of the island for industrial purposes. Although some rudimentary separation of waste is conducted, there is no recycling.

Tsunami debris adds to household garbage challenges

While garbage islands such as Thilafushi deal with industrial waste, albeit in a rudimentary manner, most domestic waste has to be dealt with on the islands where it is produced. Household rubbish is simply dumped at designated sites, often along a beach, and then left to wash out with the tide.

“This has detrimental effects on coral reefs which are important for the fishing and tourism industry - the two biggest sources of income for the Maldives,” says Chan.

The island of Maafushi wasn’t particularly hard hit by the tsunami. None of its 1,800 inhabitants died and only 18 houses were damaged. However it faces the dual problem of domestic and tsunami-generated rubbish. Waste litters the island and there is a rotten smell in the air.

“Tsunami waste is a big problem here. In addition, no houses have septic tanks, so all the sewage goes straight on to the beach,” says Maafushi island chief Ali Nasheed Katheeb.

While some of the debris is the direct result of the tsunami hitting the island, the shallow waters and beaches around Maafushi are littered with large tree trunks, oil drums, and the remains of boats which have drifted from other islands and in some cases, other affected countries.

Canadian Red Cross recovery assessment delegate Peter Robinson says the tsunami and the pre-existing waste management issues have combined to create new problems. Now the tsunami waste and domestic waste all mixed together, presenting a real health hazard. Debris is also blocking access to beaches, delaying construction.

“Much of the debris can be turned into useful material on the same island. After it is crushed it can be used as fill for building sites, mounds to protect against the sea, or it can be put back onto the beach on places affected by erosion,” says Robinson.

Enhancing water supplies

Waste management activities will be an integral part of the Federation’s reconstruction activities. It has committed to building 2,159 houses, or 85 per cent of the housing construction needs as estimated by the Maldives government national disaster management centre.

An important product of the waste management programme will be the protection and maintenance of water supplies. In association with the housing project, the Federation will help put in place low maintenance but effective sanitation systems which will protect the precious fresh ground water and contribute to improving the general sanitation infrastructure.

The Federation programme will also provide rain harvesting equipment – over 15,000 tanks and guttering systems to 80 of the tsunami-affected islands – in order to ensure access to clean water. In the short term, parallel to the cleaning up of tsunami debris, septic tanks that have been filled with sea water are being cleaned.

Selina Chan says the tsunami has made already fragile drinking water supplies more vulnerable. “Rain harvesting systems were ripped off and storage tanks were washed out to sea. All ground water supplies were contaminated by the sea water. Even during normal times, the fresh water supply is a problem for the small islands. The tsunami made it even worse by taking out whatever mechanisms they had,” she says.

Maafushi island chief Ali Nasheed Katheeb welcomes the fact that the Red Cross/Red Crescent is not just addressing the direct impact of the tsunami, but aiming to leave people in a better position than they had been before the disaster hit.

Whilst the tsunami wreaked a heavy toll on the Maldives, the nation of scattered atolls is looking forward to an enhanced waste management system to address problems which pre-dated the disaster.

“We are very happy that the Red Cross plans to come back and address these problems,” says Maafushi’s island chief.