I didn’t get my interview with the president today, and Paul, the PR liaison is sounding increasingly apologetic and uncertain. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “None of us expected the reaction to the cabinet meeting to be so huge, the president is totally full up”. It’s true that underwater event has generated unprecedented levels of exposure for Nasheed. I’ve received e-mails from excited friends around the globe who’ve seen footage on their news bulletins or read reports in their national papers. “It’s so great you’re getting to interview the president!” writes one friend excitedly, and I feel a knot in my stomach. I’m getting a very bad feeling about all this.
To distract myself I decide to walk the perimeter of Malé. It’s a view of the Maldives few visitors ever see, and it’s revealing. As I reach the west shore I see fires burning on the horizon. Plumes of thick smoke create a dirty smudge that reaches up to the clouds. These are the Fires of Thilafushi – which sounds like the title of a romantic novel, but actually betray the location of the least attractive island in the nation (and arguably the world).
Thilafushi is over 120 acres of mostly landfill, an artificial island built to deal with the prodigious amounts of refuse from the capital and neighbouring islands, as well as and some of the 3.5 kilograms of rubbish generated on average, by each tourist every single day. I see a string of industrial-looking boats, carrying four loaded rubbish trucks each, leaving Malé for the 6km trip to the island.
Built to solve a problem, Thilafushi is causing a few of its own. Simply put, it can’t handle the amount of rubbish it’s being sent. The operation has long since abandoned digging pits – the volume of waste has simply become too great to cover. Instead, Thilafushi (or ‘trash island’ as the locals call it) has been slowly expanding as some the 330 tonnes of rubbish it receives daily is loaded onto the island and into the lagoons around it. The size of the operation is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact the island now has a café, a restaurant, two mosques, and its own police station. In fact the Maldives has so much rubbish it is exporting it. Ships that bring vegetables from India return home with crushed cans, metals and cardboard. Besides the logistical problem of handling all that waste there are now concerns that toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium are leaching into the sea from the island, and posing a threat to the marine eco-system.
“This is the scariest part,” says local environmentalist Ali Rilwan in an interview with the Dhivehi Observer. “Unlike a landfill, this is a lagoon fill. It is a landfill in liquid form and so it absorbs these chemicals much more easily.”
I’ve also been shocked to find out that the Maldives, including all the resorts, dumps its raw sewage into the ocean. As a nation, the Maldives needs some serious toilet training.
I continue my walk to the north shore and find lines of oil trucks.
The smell of diesel is thick in the air as boat owners queue up to fill their engines with fuel. Further down the road I find the capital’s power plant, happily expelling carbon into the atmosphere.
According to the CIA yearbook the country imports the equivalent of 5,490 barrels of oil a day, highlighting the challenge Nasheed has in committing his country to carbon neutrality.
But the new president seems to be onto it with typical verve. Within a month of me leaving the islands he announces a deal with General Electric to build a £160M offshore wind farm comprising 30 large turbines and delivering power via a network underwater cables. It’s estimated the plant will provide 40% of the nation’s electricity and reduce its carbon emissions by 25%,
I also find out that the new administration is tackling the rubbish problem too, having established the Waste Management Corporation with a mandate of collecting and processing all waste in the nation in an environmentally friendly manner.
Such moves should begin to answer those critics of Nasheed who say he’s all about PR stunts (like Saturday’s cabinet meeting) but light on action. It’s a popular refrain amongst the Maldivians I’ve spoken to so far on the streets of the capital – there’s a general feeling that the new president is a good thing, but it’s all about delivery now. His critics include the German owner of the Thai restaurant where I have lunch. Upon realising I’m a writer he cannot wait to tell me his views on the new regime insisting, I’m surprised to hear, that things were better under Gayoom’s dictatorship. “This country isn’t ready for democracy,” he tells me, “The don’t know how to handle it”. He goes on to warn me that the local currency is worthless and I shouldn’t use it, which explains why he prefers you to settle his bill in US dollars – before giving you your change in Maldivian Rufiyaa.
My final stop is an artificial beach on the capital’s East side. It’s deserted – a forlorn curio. Can it be popular when a boat ride away are some of the finest beaches anywhere on the planet? I sit for a while trying not to worry about the fact I’ve still heard nothing about my interview. Tomorrow is my last full day in Malé. If I don’t speak to the president then I’ll probably not get to talk to him at all…