A waft of smoke over Villingili

by Rae Munavvar

Someone else's paradise (Issue IV/2019)

Take a moment to imagine you are cycling along sandy roads, sheltered by coconut palms and sea hibiscus which line your path, all the while munching on a farm-grown jujube fruit as a gentle sea breeze ruffles through your hair. Such is life on the beautiful Maldivian island of Villingili, where native vegetation thrives, towering buildings are scarce and the only natural beaches in the region are to be found.

Villingili is just 15 minutes away by ferry from the Maldivian capital Malé City. Apart from the police, the ambulance and construction work, all of its residents use battery powered cycles and buggies or simply ride bicycles to get around. Thanks to shared gardens that grow fruit and vegetables, conscious involvement of differently abled people, strong presence of charitable organisations that hold regular activities including cleanups – there is a strong sense of community. Over all the ethos largely favours a lifestyle that causes less harm, and inspires positivity.

Villingili stands in stark contrast to the bustling streets of Malé which are devoid of palms and has crowded pathways which are instead lined with dust-coated motorcycles. Trapped within a barricade of shiny buildings, a cloud of smog has taken up residence over the city which never seems to sleep. Little is grown here, apart from tiny garden patches maintained by those with particularly green fingers. It is the epicentre of business and progress but one glance at a photograph taken just two decades ago is enough to reveal the undeniably steep cost of change. Just look at Hulhumalé, a suburb of Malé which lies adjacent to the island of Hulhulé and which houses Velana International Airport. It stands on a graveyard of coral, broken down to form its roads and sea barriers.

The neighbouring landmass Thilafushi is an artificial island created entirely out of trash, garbage collected from the districts of Hulhumalße, Malé and Villimalé. While it is certainly laughable that such an island exists in ‘paradise on earth’, there is little that is funny about the consequences this city’s disposal problem has wrought on the atoll’s delicate ecosystem.

“We don’t fish anywhere close to the area any more,” said a local fisherman, based in Hulhumalé. He now travels with the boat’s crew to the outermost corners to the atoll where he believes the pollution does not reach.

Hassan Ahmed, Founder and President of Save The Beach Maldives, an environmental NGO, paints a stark picture: “All the smoke from Thilafushi hits Villimalé and the West of Malé. The region still burns its garbage, making huge carbon emissions; polluting our habitat and the air we breathe.”

Thus, the self-sustaining island, one that should be hailed across the archipelago and beyond as an example of how a community can slash its carbon footprint, finds itself suffering from pollution created from larger hubs and far more industrial areas.

Mohamed Shihab, a long-time resident on the island, reports that if you cycle during the monsoon season, you’re likely to be confronted by “a foul smell from the smoke produced by garbage mountains, it’s so bad that you have to cover your nose – let alone avoid dry your laundry outside!” Shihab, who also volunteers at the community initiative Villijoali, believes that the smoke has an effect on the rain and also increases diseases.  “People complain in vain, on the streets. There is no agency that takes responsibility.”

Last December, Maldives’ Waste Management Corporation (WAMCO) reported that their nationwide cleanup collected a total of 195 tonnes of garbage from the combined districts of Malé, Hulhumalé and Vilimalé. However, only 11 percent came from Villimalé – and this was just a simple litter roundup from public areas.

It must be presumed that readers have continued reading to this point with interest and have thus presumably come to empathise with the plight of ‘Villimale-ians’. The real crux of the problem, however, is the picture this paints of the clash between island nations like the Maldives and the rest of the planet.

The most low-lying country in the world, and one of the lowest contributors to global warming, is at the very forefront of resultant climate change, set to experience the first signs of devastation that scientists have unanimously confirmed will follow in the years to come.

The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC published in 2010, confirmed that climate change was, at the time, already affecting people, ecosystems and livelihoods all around the world, adding that while limiting warming to 1.5ºC was “possible”, it would require “unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society”. It also goes on to state that the international commitments outlined within the Paris Agreement were not entirely consistent with maintaining temperatures well below 2°C, suggesting that without urgent mitigation measures that pull greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, global warming is set to surpass 1.5°C in the following decades, which would inevitably lead to the demise of ecosystems like that of our fragile Villimalé, and in fact, numerous archipelagoes just like the Maldives.

The parallel lies in the way that larger, industrial nations have not just failed to meet the goals in reducing global emissions as indicated by the Paris Agreement. The European Union, the United States of America, India and China have all recorded an increase in emissions as well as the use of natural gas and oil. Countries like the Maldives contribute a very small percentage to the problem, even collectively, but are already heavily impacted by the ‘planetary’ consequences. It is a world-wide responsibility, but it is only small states that are currently paying the price.

If the coral reefs die, the oceans die, and when the oceans die, it doesn’t matter how far away from the tropics you live - there will be no oxygen to breathe. The apocalyptic deserts we see in dystopian fantasy movies will become a reality in our own lifetimes.

In the Maldives, thanks largely to constant social media pressure, this issue is now of great concern. Several residents of the greater Malé region have been trying to find ways in which to rectify the Villingili problem, but for the most part, the damage has already been inflicted.

“The wind blowing from the west in Southwest monsoon is carrying the poisonous smoke from Thilafushi. Today Villingili was barely visible from Malé. More than one-third of the population of Maldives lives in the Malé region and are directly affected by this poisonous smoke. What will be the long-term health effects of inhaling the toxic smoke? What is the contribution of Thilafushi to an increase in cancer and lung diseases? When will open burning of garbage stop?” reads a tweet from the Maldivian Green Movement.

In 2018 the country headed to the polls and elected President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and his coalition government, on pledges surrounding climate adaptation, mitigation measures and an overall move towards sustainability. Whether his administration will succeed remains to be seen.

Regardless of Maldivian politics however, if there is no unity between island nations and the rest of the world, the point is moot. Worldwide, the climate-change discourse needs to gain more traction and in the right way – not simply on the subject of reducing certain types of waste but in terms of pressuring decision makers to slash carbon emissions. Voters around the world need to push their leaders to defend the greater good for all. The Maldives, and other island nations, are in a state of self-inflicted climate emergency.

This leaves us with the real question: How long will the rest of the world stand by while island states vanish?

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