Ignorance is Paradise
Coral reefs, unbeknownst to many, are more than just beautiful rocks. They are living animals that protect coastlines, provide food and shelter for over 25% of marine organisms, yield $500M worth of protein, provide opportunities for biotechnology and energy, assist with nutrient cycling, and generate billions of dollars in tourism annually. They are teeming with diversity, and yet, most coral reefs remaining in the world are degraded and bleached due to ocean stressors such as increasing temperature, pollution and eutrophication, overfishing, and ocean acidification, to name a few. The Maldives often sparks imagery of pristine, sandy beaches and beautiful, secluded resorts – the “island life.” However, what I discovered from our 2016 Expedition to the Maldives is that this image holds true to those that have not been exposed to – or choose to look away from – the truth, including wealthy politicians, visiting foreigners, and the rest of the outside world, including my former self. The disparate behavior and advantages of the wealthy and ignorant is crudely exposed when resorts are situated adjacent to islands inhabited by locals.
The many islands that make up the Maldives face serious challenges, especially related to climate change and human impacts. Sea levels are rising and so is the competition for space, with over 133,000 people living in an area of just 2.2 sq mi in Malé. I saw island governance struggle to obtain basic living needs to help their communities survive and maintain good health, while some individuals thrive on monetary gain from tourism and development. Although I knew about these environmental issues before this expedition, I hadn’t anticipated the human element would be as challenging to grasp in person, and would shake up what I thought I understood about people and our environment. Below are my notes on what I witnessed and learned about these needs, based on my visits to different islands and discussions with locals. My understanding scratches just the surface of a tumultuous history rooted in corruption and economic strife. Ironically, the hand that feeds the economy (wealthy foreign countries), is pushing this nation towards a literal drowning.
Clean Drinking Water
With the average island height 3ft above sea level, any available groundwater is highly susceptible to pollution and contamination from human waste and salt water. The tsunami in 2004 brought this to great attention after its destruction left 79 islands without safe drinking water. The rise of sea levels submerged the entire nation in inches of water that destroyed groundwater, soil fertility, and 50% of rainwater tanks. UNICEF provided rainwater harvesting tanks and several desalination units to islands in 2005, however, I learned that the amount of water collected is not enough to accommodate a year’s supply, and many of these units need repair. When fresh water runs out (or is not there to begin with), islands rely on the shipment of plastic bottled water by boat. This perpetuates the issue of plastic waste, and the enormity of use is both unavoidable and the evidence is ubiquitous.
Waste Management (sewage)
Most island communities rely on pumping raw sewage into the ground. Due to the height of islands, waste often overflows directly into surrounding swimming and fishing beaches. I did not see any septic tanks/treatment on the islands I visited, but I am told Malé and resorts are equipped with such facilities, although all physical waste is still shipped to “Trash Island” for burning, whether or not visitors are aware.
Waste Management (garbage, especially plastic)
Many island communities resort to burning trash, as they lack adequate infrastructure to sort, recycle, and compost. Besides the enormous amount of smoke ingestion, toxic chemicals leach into the ocean where kids play, people fish, and tourists come to see the beautiful coral reefs. When we moored near an island coined “Trash Island,” and barges overloaded with trash bags continually passed us while fires burned nearby, it’s no surprise some of us experienced stomach pains and dizziness.
Visiting one island, we saw a section of the beach that had previously been reserved as a “pen” for trash to wash into the sea. When they ran out of space and guests at neighboring resorts complained of seeing trash in the reefs, they began to burn the trash on land, next to a school. Locals attempt to sort electronics and scrap metal before the burns, but these materials usually pile up since they require someone to voluntarily take them to other islands for reuse. This particular island is considered one of the leading in environmental health and safety.
At this island we also spoke to a council member about his initiative to ban plastic bags, which was driven by 1) his desire to eradicate what they see as a preventable waste, and more so, 2) the negative feedback from tourists at the adjacent resorts, ultimately threatening the jobs of many who depend on tourism for income. Thus, it seems economic pressure drives good deeds unintentionally (i.e. the environment and communities are the benefactors). However, to my surprise, this is not the majority of cases – most people I met wanted to see the health of their country and families improve. These heroes host beach cleanups, voluntarily pioneer waste collection and disposal for their island, endlessly plea for support from council members, and persevere in united causes with no support or resources. They continue to fight even when they’re outnumbered or constantly told no.
This subject moved me the most, as its direct impacts were evident and immediate. I also spent most of my academic years studying the effects of pollution and its impacts to surrounding communities and ecosystems, specifically coral reefs. As with the rest of the world, the waste we produce must end up somewhere. The average person produces over 4lbs of waste per day and, considering plastics never biodegrade, the rate of consumption is overwhelming in a densely populated place with inadequate and out-of-sight disposal facilities.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
When I was young I lived on an island where everyone burned their rubbish, because making the journey to the mainland was costly. I didn’t see the problem in this at the time, and quite frankly as much of an asthmatic environmentalist as I am, every individual at the end of the day needs to make a living. I saw changes only when the government installed a successful recycling program with penalties for violators. Despite witnessing community change as a result from top-down driven penalties, incentives, and education, the most surprising and moving realization I’m taking away from our expedition to the Maldives is that all efforts to positively influence the environment was coming from individuals, sometimes at the stake of sacrificing livelihood.
These basic needs are strongly interconnected, and an emerging common theme is that responsibility is easily relieved by an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. It’s a human characteristic that I understand all too well, living in a country that produces some of the world’s highest amount of waste and greenhouse gases annually. I’ve lived my whole life without having to correlate basic necessities with luxuries because they are provided without fail, but this often comes with a price tag of excess or naivety, the repercussions of both falling on smaller nations. For instance, the Maldives are responsible for just 0.01% of global greenhouse gases, but they suffer due to collective harm from other countries.
Towards the end of our time in the Maldives, we took a trip to Malé, the capital. Outside of the markets along the harbor, I saw trash, dead fish, and an oil slick floating amid the docked boats. Somehow seeing waste directly in my face makes it alarmingly grotesque, even though it’s nothing compared to the scale the US produces. This final thought before I went home, to a country where “environmental support” is not considered an excessive commodity, made me think about how we often separate ourselves geographically and responsibly by social status, and arbitrary country and ocean borders. Regardless of how much we increase our “green” efforts in the US, we are guilty if we do not do something to help the Maldives, because their problems are a result of our ignorance and enormity of waste. Pollution and harm on one shore is akin to a stab from a knife – eventually that bleeding seeps to our shore. How many wounds does it take to recognize we are all one ocean, that all of life on land depends upon?
Looking back at the tsunami of 2004, experts say that without the protection of surrounding coral reefs, islands could have suffered much worse damage. These necessary, but threatened ecosystems, deserve to be seen and placed front of mind when we think of the future we want for ourselves and communities.
Note: Having visited the Maldives for only a few weeks as an outsider, these are my personal reflections from interacting with local people, hearing their stories, and seeing impacts first hand; not how I think or feel people should live or want to live their life.