Powder-white beaches, turquoise water and colourful sea life – the Maldives is one of the world’s most desirable tropical holiday destinations. More than one million international visitors touch down here and check into luxury resorts every year. And most would be blissfully unaware they’re adversely affecting the island nation’s ailing marine life.
The archipelago, south west of India, comprises 1190 coral islets. Ninety are run solely as resort islands, with tourism the biggest contributor to the local economy. Despite each tourist generating an average 3.2kg of refuse a day, the country has no formal recycling or waste management plan, so it has become standard practice for luxury resorts to dump their rubbish into the ocean.
Australian marine biologist Hannah Moloney spent 10 months working in the Maldives. During her stay, she helped to educate locals about rubbish disposal. “There’s so much food waste,” says Moloney, referring to the 530kg resorts collectively dump into the sea each day. “They’re allowed to do it, but the marine life shouldn’t be eating things like chicken or beef. Their bodies can’t digest those foods, so they become overweight, circling the dumping points, knowing they have a guaranteed food source.”
Moloney adds that while resort staff are supposed to separate food from other waste products for disposal, the system isn’t monitored. “Plastic, paper, glass – everything you can think of is dumped into the ocean, even though anything other than food is supposed to be sent out to ‘Rubbish Island’.”
Thilafushi – known as “Rubbish Island” by locals – is an artificial island seven kilometres from the nation’s capital, Mali. It was built as a solution to the all waste, with the rubbish sorted and unusable refuse then incinerated.
Moloney visited Thilafushi and says it’s not for the faint hearted. “It’s been on fire for about 16 years,” she says. “So you arrive and see this toxic cloud of black smoke. It’s the most disgusting smell, even with masks on. Barges arrive at the shore and the muck is scraped off and set alight. And the workers live there, breathing those fumes in every day.”
Beautification is also taking a toll. Tonnes of sand is brought in and spread around existing reefs, creating island shapes that appeal in glossy brochures.
“They do it to maximise the amount of beach space for tourists as well,” says Moloney. “But it actually smothers the coral reefs. Most people forget that coral is an animal and it needs to breathe.”
This land reclamation is also affecting other local species. “There are seven sea turtle species worldwide and five of them are found in the Maldives,” she says. Although the government has designated some turtle nesting sites protected around the archipelago, there is still concern about their future.
“There’s no doubt the resorts are beautiful, but when you’re behind the scenes, you realise just how much they’re scarring the environment.”