No waste spill in Thilafushi lagoon: Male’ City Council

The Male’ City Council (MCC) has disputed “inaccurate” local media reports that a large waste spill occurred in the Thilafushi (‘garbage island’) lagoon last night.

Large amounts of garbage were reported to have accumulated in the Thilafushi lagoon due to “spillover” while a barge was off loading waste from the capital Male’, according to Sun Online.

However, MCC Councillor Mohamed Abdul Kareem, the council member responsible for waste management, told Minivan News today (June 29) that local media reports were “not accurate” and that no garbage spill occurred on Thilafushi last night.

“Due to the bad weather this past month the jetty was damaged – half of it was broken and it has been damaged for two weeks – however repairs were completed yesterday,” Kareem explained.

“Earlier this month because of the high winds, some waste was carried into the harbor, but not a big amount,” he added. “There was no spill, it’s not an issue.”

Kareem explained that trash tends to “line the [harbour] area” and moves from one side to the other in relation to the wind, current, and tides, however due to the harbor’s shape does not easily float out into the open sea.

“Thirty vessels dump trash there daily, so there might be something in the area, but it’s a dead end,” said Kareem.

“Items have been floating [in the harbor] over a month, but there was not a big spill or dump,” he noted.

Senior officials from the MCC were sent to inspect Thilafushi last month and confirmed operations were “very organised”, according to Kareem.

“Cleaning [waste that accumulates in the harbor] is ongoing,” said Kareem. “The area is well maintained by the Male’ City Council.”

Thilafushi rehabilitation stalled

Thilafushi management was transferred to the Male’ City Council (MCC) in 2010 as part of the Decentralisation Act. Accordingly, a contract was signed in 2011 with the Indian-based company Tatva Global Renewable Energy to rehabilitate the island, manage garbage generated in Male’, on nearby inhabited islands and resorts, as well as implement a system designed to generate power from recycling waste.

However, President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik’s administration announced it was renegotiating the Tatva agreement in December 2012 to reach what Environment Minister Dr Mariyam Shakeela referred to at the time as a “mutually beneficial” agreement.

In response the Male’ City Council (MCC) accused authorities of trying to “sabotage” the deal.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environment and Social Safeguards Coordinator Ibrahim Mohamed told Minivan News earlier this year that plans to rehabilitate Thilafushi have been stalled due to procedural “hiccups”.

“The World Bank (WB) is not happy, because Thilafushi is not a managed site,” said Mohamed. “There were hiccups in environmental safeguards.”

In order to ensure waste management on Thilafushi adhered to proper environmental safety standards, the government has been seeking assistance to rehabilitate the island.

“During the public private partnership that was [previously] announced, Tatva was contracted to do a proper landfill and incinerator, etc. They were investing US$15 million, but then when the government changed [in February 2012] there were hiccups in all these public private partnership contracts, and they left,” recounted Mohamed.

He explained that Tatva was ultimately brought back to negotiate a new contract.

“First there was the idea of throwing them out, but then [Tatva was] brought [back] in and told to sell some shares to local companies, i.e. water and sewerage. [So] they finally agreed to form a consortium with local companies and invest,” Mohamed continued.

“Within next two years we will see a better, rehabilitated facility [at Thilafushi],” he added.

While Thilafushi waste management remains a contentious issue, other projects are being implemented in Raa and Ari Atollsfunded, respectively, by the World Bank and Climate Change Trust Fund (CCTF) – in an effort to develop alternative processing sites.


Maldives’ waste management hampered by local politics, lack of funding

Government civil servants are still working to create functional waste management systems despite numerous failed projects nationwide and a lack of ministerial collaboration.

Establishing a national waste management system is dependent on the success of a US$6.5 million pilot program implemented by the Ministry of Housing and Environment.

Ahmed Nizam, Solid Waste Management Coordinator for the project, told Minivan News that construction of one system on the uninhabited island of Vandhoo in Raa Atoll will hopefully be completed by late 2013 and the system should be operational by the beginning of 2014.

Nizam explained, “This differs from previous projects because it is holistic, sustainable, and state of the art. It is a regional waste management system that includes everything – community awareness, equipment, infrastructure, transportation, and processing – whereas previous projects lacked in one or more of these areas.”

The World Bank funded Maldives Environmental Management Project (MEMP) will cover four northern atolls – Noonu, Raa, Baa, and Lhaviyani – and plans to process 52 tons of waste daily for 45 inhabited islands (over 7000 households), 15 operational resorts, 15 resorts in development, and nine industrial islands.

“The Vandhoo processing system has been engineered by a German company and meets European standards. The World bank would only provide funds to a properly functioning facility,” Nizam stated.

The processing facility on Vandhoo differs from previous waste management endeavors in that it has learned from the horrific failures of Thilafushi. There will be controlled incineration and no open burning, mixed waste, or land reclamation using trash.

Instead, composting of organic waste – which accounts for 70 percent of trash volume – will be dealt with at the island level, while the incinerated ash that cannot be reused for making bricks will be landfilled in “cells” that prevent chemical leaching into groundwater.

“Thilafushi is not what we want. The current conditions there pose serious health and safety threats to Bangladeshi workers living there and those toxins spread to Male’ and Villingili as well.

“The citizens of Raa atoll have expressed concerns the Vandhoo site will be another Thilafushi and we have gone to great lengths to ensure that will not happen,” Nizam added.

Although recyclables will be separated, there will be no facilities on Vandhoo to process them. Currently, the only alternative is to sell to neighboring countries.

However, there are plans to convert heat produced from the incinerators using a “donkey boiler” into electricity.

Nizam also explained to Minivan News that current government policy dictates waste must be brought to the nearest designated processing facility.

In practice, this “proximity principle” means that waste from the northern atolls can be transported to Vandhoo instead of Thilafushi.

“With only two transport vessels for this regional system we lack the capacity to expand transportation to the northern-most atolls. However, there is a possibility the transportation network can expanded in the future,” Nizam stated.

Depending on the success of this pilot program and access to development funds, regional centers are planned to be built throughout the country. In the interim, transporting waste to Vandhoo island will serve as a stop-gap measure.

A waste tracking system is included in this regional system, which will monitor how much garbage is being sent by resorts and matching this against what is received on Vandhoo, to discourage dumping into the sea by rogue garbage contractors trying to avoid fuel bills.

To further ensure the project’s sustainability, island councils in the region as well as civil society organisations are partnering with the MEMP to educate islanders through community-based awareness programs.

“Resort fees and household fees will cover operational costs, so this regional system will not be dependent on government funds. However, the government has the option to subsidize fees for islanders,” Nizam said.

The newly created state utilities company Fenaka Corporation Ltd will run the Vandhoo operations.

MEMP is currently negotiating with civil works contractors to develop Vandhoo infrastructure.

Past failures and current shortcomings

Establishing waste management systems on the islands has been an ongoing struggle.

Most islands have waste areas that vary in quality and have no means of processing or removing trash from the garbage areas.

Nizam explained that after the 2004 tsunami the United Nations (UN), Canadian and Australian Red Cross built infrastructure and provided equipment for some islands, however no island level program plans or systems were put in place.

A more wide-scale failure was the European Union (EU)-supported Ari Atoll waste management program.

“All the studies were completed and islands were provided infrastructure and equipment, however funding was withdrawn [for a regional processing facility] because the government-proposed equipment was deemed too expensive and no regulations were established,” according to Nizam.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government attempted to correct the problem but could not secure funds, or establish sustainable public private partnerships due to political polarisation fueling a lack of island council support, he added.

Currently, under the EU and Australia Aid funded Climate Change Trust Fund (CCTF), a pilot program is being launched to support waste management development on five Ari atoll islands and one waste transfer vessel that will bring garbage to Thilafushi, Nizam further explained.

Correcting the mismanagement of Thilafushi remains a work in progress.

The previous government under Nasheed had signed a waste management agreement with India-based Tatva Global Renewable Energy back in May 2011 to implement a system designed to generate power from recycling waste.

The contract has been undergoing renegotiation with the current government as part of efforts to provide what it has called a more “mutually beneficial” agreement – a move slammed by the Male’ City Council (MCC), which accused authorities of trying to “sabotage” the deal.

Meanwhile the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has pledged to take the “lead” in addressing waste management issues in Male’ should the city’s council and the Ministry of Environment and Energy fail to effectively deal with concerns about garbage.

There are no regulations or laws for waste management, only the Environmental Protection Act, however the Environmental Protection Agency is in the “final stages” of completing regulations and should be releasing them within the next few weeks, according to Nizam.

Is civil society filling the gap?

The opinion of many islanders is that since there is no way to process or remove the waste, there is no point in not littering.

Imad Mohamed, Executive Director of Huvadhoo Aid (HAD), told Minivan News about some of the projects and related challenges this non-governmental organization (NGO) has encountered regarding waste management and environmental conservation.

Huvahdoo Aid’s main focus in this area is helping other NGOs throughout the region develop community-based waste management plans.

“However, last year HAD tried to construct waste management center on Hoadedhdhoo island in collaboration with the Male’-based NGO Community Aid, funded by the Mangroves for the Future (MMF) program. We also had a partnership agreement with a neighboring resort that was willing to donate an incinerator.

“However, the Hoadedhdhoo Island Council claimed that they did not want HAD to build the [waste management] centre, because it is ‘mandated’ that the island council should run the centre,” according to Imad.

A source from the partnering resort explained that they were excited to donate the incinerator to HAD, assist with installation, and even modify it to create hot water free of change.

“It had been sitting on our dock for five months rusting,” the source explained.

However, logistics to transport the incinerator could not be arranged.

The incinerator has now been given to a different island in the atoll.

The Hoadedhdhoo Island Council did not respond to calls at the time of press.

Resorts going it alone

Resorts are aiming for “self-sufficiency” when it comes to waste management, since there are no regional centres in operation.

While there are tourism regulations that require certain waste management systems are constructed on resorts, they are only inspected once constructed, Nizam told Minivan News.

“Facilities are not properly used, are very costly, and some resorts claim tourists do not want to see waste burning,” he said.

Whether resorts adopt sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices is de facto voluntary.

Some are motivated by the need to maintain an eco-friendly reputation and sell the Maldives as a “premium [vacation] destination” that is also “environmentally sensitive,” a resort manager told Minivan News.

Their resort is “trying to do the right thing” and has developed a waste management system that has reduced 70 percent of their waste.

“Thilafushi is just wrong. We have reduced our trips there from seven per week to one,” the source stated.

The resort also conducts training for staff and their Maldivian team has “embraced” these environmentally friendly practices, the manager claimed.


Garbage floats freely from “impatient” boats

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has blamed a surge of garbage floating in Thilafushi lagoon on “impatient” trash boats; trash which is now flowing into the sea.

In 2009, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that 330 tons of waste are transported in Thilafushi island for processing. Thilafushi is commonly known as ‘garbage island’.

Head of the EPA, Ibrahim Naeem, said a “huge amount of garbage” has been collecting in the ocean, due partly to a change in tides. Speaking to Minivan News today, Naeem did not want to say whether the trash was coming from resort boats, but did say the problem “involves everyone”.

“The mechanism for waste collection and disposal needs to be improved,” he said. “The EPA has to do some work on the matter, and the people who are bringing in the garbage and contributing to its buildup also need to take responsibility.”

Naeem said the EPA had photographs and names of several boats that had been dumping garbage into the sea. The agency is now investigating 10 cases.

Naeem said legal action will be taken against boats caught dumping garbage, which would affect fishing and tourism, two of the country’s largest economic contributors.

Yet there are signs that both the garbage and a lack of regulation may already be affecting tourism. In a recent interview with Minivan News, French tourist Marie Kivers noted a lack of waste bins on Male and Guraidhoo.

It’s funny because we who live abroad think that Male’ will be an example for the world about pollution and everything, since global warming is important here. But when you see the inhabitants in the Maldives, they put anything into the sea,” she said.

Some boat captains have claimed that boats from islands, safaris and resorts dump garbage into the lagoon instead of anchoring near Thilafushi, reports Haveeru. An earlier rule stating that garbage had to be dumped before six in the evening likely contributed to the rushed habit.

Reports indicate that the waste exceeds the capacity of Thilafushi. Naeem says some boats are getting impatient.

“The facility at Thilafushi is designed so that only two or three boats can dock and dump at a time,” said Naeem. “If the waste is not removed from the area, however, or the boats take a while, other boats won’t be able to get in and dump their waste.”

The EPA has said that arrangements are being made to ensure that waste is only dumped on the island under the supervision of a council employee – a thing earlier practiced, reports Haveeru. An official also said that boats traveling to Thilafushi will be charged according to waste weight.

Thilafushi is currently the only island designed for waste disposal in the Maldives. Naeem told Minivan News that there are plans for a new site to be developed in Raa Atoll.


Thilafushi tenants owe US$880,000 in back rent, says TCL

Tilafushi Corporation Limited (TCL) is currently not leasing any land plots on Thilafushi island to new applicants, says Chief Executive Officer of TCL Mohamed Zahir, because they are inundated with applications.

Meanwhile almost a fifth of the plots already allocated are lying idle, while some tenants have failed to pay rent to the tune of (US$882,000).

The 100 percent government-owned company is responsible for managing and developing Thilafushi island, formerly known as Thilafalhu lagoon. Reclamation of the lagoon began in 1992 in order to solve the waste management problems from garbage generated in Malé.

Other industry workers, such as brick makers, were leased land plots in Thilafushi by the previous government, and new applications for land plots are constantly coming in to TCL.

“We have decided there is no intention to give land [to new applicants],” Zahir said, but added that “the board has decided to give land to those who applied before 31 December 2009.”

TCL received 84 claims for land plots before the end of 2009, and Zahir said these plots will “hopefully” be allocated to the claimants this year.

“There is a lot of interest in the market,” Zahir said, “we have to do something. We have no proper industry and people are still demanding [land].”

Zahir said they are re-planning Thilafushi by building timber outlets, garages and workshops, and the land plots which are to be leased should be ready within the year.

He said there are currently 256 lots under lease, but “fifty or sixty of them are not working at all.”

Zahir added that some of the people who had land plots allocated to them had not yet moved from Malé to Thilafushi and the corporation has asked them to move to Thilafushi by September 2010.

Zahir added that “some of the tenants [who were given land by the previous government] have not paid their rent up to April 2009,” money which he claimed adds up to a total of Rf11.3 million (US$882,000).

“These people have to pay,” Zahir said, but noted that the TCL has only been collecting rent money since April 2009.

He said the tenants who owe TCL rent money “say they will pay.”

The TCL is also hoping to reclaim an additional 19 million square metres of land by mid-2010.

Zahir added that the statements of their intention to lease land without announcing it in today’s article on Haveeru were “all wrong” and their intention is to further develop the island before considering new applications for land.