Imagine living through a tsunami and having over 36,000 cubic metres of waste and debris left behind as a constant reminder, an obstacle to recovery and a dangerous health risk. It’s enough to fill over 800 of Canada’s largest waste disposal trucks.
But for the Maldives, a country made up of over 1,200 islands spread across more than 1,800 kilometres, tsunami waste posed a particular challenge, and Canadians played a lead role in cleaning it up.
Large piles of tsunami debris, such as broken glass, battery acid and rubble from destroyed buildings, posed numerous health problems. Children were particularly at risk, drawn to playing around the large, colorful mounds of garbage. Water sitting in garbage attracted rats and mosquitoes — carriers of dengue fever and malaria. Chemicals and heavy metals threatened to seep into the ground, potentially contaminating the water and fish supplies (a major food staple and source of income for Maldivians).
“I didn’t see waste as an issue before, but now I realize it is clearly the biggest issue that the Maldives has to face in terms of the environment and health,” says Inaya Abdurraheem, project officer for the Maldives Ministry of Environment. “Until now, there hadn’t been a good way to deal with garbage.”
The waste management issues of the Maldives are being addressed with the successful completion in June 2007 of a $10.3-million joint venture between the Canadian and Australian Red Cross, with support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
The Red Cross tsunami waste management program cleared 77 islands the equivalent of clearing six football fields one-metre deep with waste. Seventy-nine waste management centres for recycling were also built, which directly benefits over 100,000 residents — nearly a third of the population. As well, more than 70 training sessions were conducted involving more than 1,200 community representatives.
“The tsunami really showed us the problem of garbage. Our island was so dirty and there was a bad smell,” says Naalaafushi resident, Hussain Rafeen. “We are very happy for the advice and assistance from the Red Cross, which will help keep our island clean. We will try our best and if each of us does a little bit, together we can do it easily.”
At a community session on the island of Nellaidhoo, a small group of men and women with Red Cross staff review their waste management plan, with a template provided in the local language, Dhivehi.
“The idea of composting and recycling is really a new idea in the Maldives,” says Jonn Braman, a Burnaby resident and waste management delegate in the Maldives. “It’s exciting to see how quickly some communities are embracing this program, and the impact it is making on their islands. Waste that previously lined the beaches is now concentrated in one area and sorted.”
The centres provide a central location for community members to bring the waste and separate it into plastics, metals and hazardous waste. Organic matter is either composted or burned.
“The centres are especially helpful for the women because we are the ones responsible for cleaning public areas on the island,” says Nazma Rushdie, a member of the island Women’s Development Committee. “So now most of the garbage is here and there is not as much to clean up in other places.”
Shortly before the centres opened on each island, Red Cross held lively and interactive training sessions about separating household waste.
“This program will not only help with our garbage, but should also reduce the garbage on other islands that often washes up on our shores… It won’t take long for everyone to cooperate and change their way of thinking about garbage,” says Naalaafushi Island resident, Murshida Hasan shortly after a Red Cross training session.
Changing behavior takes time and sustainability depends not only on increasing community knowledge and ownership about waste, but also the capacity of the Ministry of Environment to support communities with equipment, ongoing training, and waste collection systems. For this reason, Red Cross also funded a delegate to help the ministry develop and implement its national waste policy.
“Only cleaning the debris from the tsunami would have been a band-aid solution,” says Richard Clair, an Ottawa resident and country coordinator for Canadian Red Cross in the Maldives. “It wouldn’t have addressed the waste created in the future. The most important part of this program is working with communities to develop good waste management practices for long after we leave.”
In the Maldives there is widespread belief in evil spirits called jinns, which come from the water and are responsible when bad things happen. As a result, communities often live as close to the middle of the island and as far away from the water as possible. The beach is considered by locals to be the least valuable part of an island.
The 2004 tsunami did little to diminish Maldivians’ superstition, but what is changing is their perception of where to put their household waste.
Jenna Clarke is Senior Public Affairs Advisor with the Canadian Red Cross in Ottawa, Ontario. Contact Jenna at firstname.lastname@example.org