MALÉ - Plumes of thick smoke rise from the small island and disappear into the brightness of the Indian Ocean. Thilafushi is a gigantic floating and burning garbage dump. It's a stain, a black eye on this idyllic archipelago with its 1200 islands, crystal-clear lagoons and blissful tourism.
Walking around Thilafushi is hellish. To protect yourself against toxic exhalations, you have to put a scarf over your face, and you can easily twist your ankle climbing mountains of trash. Behind concrete block walls you can see piles and piles of plastic bottles. Down the road, in the poisonous fog, garbage trucks dump their load.
Thilafushi is the hidden face of the Maldives. It is the price to pay for paradise. An artificial island created in 1992 on an artificial lagoon, it was first used as a giant waste dump for Malé, the capital where one third of the Maldivian population lives, located half an hour away from Thilafushi. Twenty years later, the size of the dump has grown as much as the tourism industry. 850,000 foreign visitors in 2011 - plus the local population - that's a lot of waste.
Maldivian trash is bound to end up in Thilafushi, although a lot of it is lost in the sea on the way over. Garbage boats regularly ferry the trash from the hundred or so islands where the seaside resorts are located, to Thilafushi. 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.
Altogether, that comes to "300 to 400 tons of trash" dumped on Thilafushi Island every day, according to Shina Ahmed, administration manager of the Thilafushi Corporation, the governmental agency that runs the island.
A toxic time bomb
"Thilafushi is a toxic bomb in the ocean," says Bluepeace, the main ecological movement of the Maldives. To gain space on the island, a great part of the litter is buried, with potentially dangerous consequences. If toxic products such as mercury, lead or asbestos leak into the sea, it will have a dramatic effect on the undersea environment, and could even find its way into the food chain- if ingested by the local fauna.
And when it is not buried, the trash is burned in open air– because of the lack of incinerators –, producing a disgusting smoke. "It's dangerous," whispers Hakim Mohammed, an immigrant Bangladeshi worker who looks for reusable materials in the dump. "When there's wind from the West, everybody at the office gets a headache," Shina Ahmed admits. Malé being so close, the capital's inhabitants are most probably exposed to the effects of the smoke.
Since there hasn't been an investigation, no one knows what the consequences regarding public health are. "But there are obvious effects: there is a growing number of pulmonary complaints in Malé," says Ahmed Murthaza, the head of the Waste Management department of the Maldivian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
An archipelago on the brink of extinction
The Thilafushi time-bomb is adding to the Maldives ecological woes, an already burning issue in a context of rise in the sea level because of global warming. The Maldivian archipelago is less than one meter above sea level, which makes it one of the most endangered countries of the world, along with South Pacific island-nations.
Water acidification caused by human activities has dramatic consequences on corals, which are needed to build reefs and in turn to create new islands.
It's now become a race against time. Maldivian authorities are struggling to minimize the toxic effects from Thilafushi. A new law is on the ropes, to limit the types of garbage that are destined for combustion: "Only organic materials," Ahmed Murthaza says. At the same time, the Maldives is starting to export its recyclable waste, mostly iron and plastic, to China, Malaysia and neighboring India.
Garbage has already become the archipelago's number two export, after the fishing industry.
Read the original article in French
Photo - Shafiu Hussain