We had a long chat with Dr Hussain Rasheed Hassan, minister of environment and energy, on a range of critical issues tied to the hospitality sector. The following excerpts have been edited for brevity.
On reducing, reusing and recycling
People don’t take individual responsibility here. Out of the 500 tonnes of waste taken to Thilafushi [landfill near the capital Malé], 65 percent is biodegradable food waste from households and restaurants.
If they didn’t cook so much at home, it won’t be wasted. For example, things like rice, you can keep the leftovers in the fridge and use it again. So we have to learn not to waste so much as well. That’s something you can do individually.
On waste management in the tourism sector
I know that there are many resorts that do it responsibly and there are places that do not take much care. For example, there are resorts that dispose untreated sewage in the sea. Some [local] islands too.
So there are challenges. People would say that the environment minister or the ministry is not doing anything, but we have a lot of issues to address. We can’t do everything at once. I admit it. We don’t just need time, we need money, too.
As you know tourists don’t come here to look at us. They see people like us in many countries in the world. They come here to see the beautiful marine life, the white beaches and the waves crashing on the shore, the oxygen-rich breeze, the biodiversity. We are destroying it with waste. That’s one of the most important issues we want to address this year, but to do that, we need the appropriate investments.
On the government’s plans
It’s impossible to take all the waste produced in the country to Thilafushi. In the past, there were no investments made to manage waste in Thilafushi. It’s a place that receives waste, so the waste mounds there have been burning since 20 or 30 years ago. So we are not burning it again, just that the fire hasn’t been put out. It doesn’t go out when it rains or when sprayed with water. It’s been burning from the bottom. If we were to put the fire out, we would have to take parts of it and do it in parts.
So we are investing US$165 million dollars, if I remember correctly, to develop a modern waste management system. Biodegradable waste recycling and recycling old vehicles that get thrown out, as well as concrete waste from houses that gets demolished. Our plan is to break them down and recycle them to be used again in construction. So we are developing a facility by 2024. But even before that, some services will be available. Right now, we are receiving so much waste there that we don’t have the space to build the infrastructure needed. But we are trying to clear some of it and move some to new grounds. So there are challenges. I’m not saying it was the past government or anything but the issue is we have not invested in the appropriate infrastructure.
Our plan is to manage all the biodegradable waste on all the inhabited islands in the Maldives on the islands themselves. And the waste that has to be taken out, like scrap metal, cans and plastic bottles, solid waste, to be taken to a regional facility.
So there’s one in Raa atoll Vandhoo. We are building one in Thilafushi. And one in Addu that’s ongoing. When these are being operated, everything will be facilitated. The Addu facility will be done by 2021. And Thilafushi by 2024, because it’s bigger. These are done with donor assistance, with World Bank or ADB funding, so it’s not done at the speed we want. It’s done through their procurement process. We have to do certain assessments and make [bid] announcements so it can’t be done as fast as we want.
On sustainable tourism
People should accept the polluter pay concept. Investors should include it in their operational cost. They have to pay to get rid of the waste they are producing. It shouldn’t be that when I keep it outside, the council has to take responsibility. The council gets paid from the government budget. It’s people’s money in the budget. And we need that money to educate our children, for healthcare, everything related to development. So when you refuse to pay a fee that you have to pay for the waste that you have produced, it’s very sad.
There are some islands, I won’t name names, where they have good guesthouse businesses, and they don’t want to pay for the island’s waste management. They say they pay their green tax and to do it through the green tax. The green tax has to be used for many environment-related projects. More than 70 percent goes towards establishing sewerage systems and water supply, renewable energy.
We are not saying we won’t spend on waste management. We should create awareness so that guesthouse businesses and citizens should get involved and cooperate so that we can do it in a meaningful way.
Everyone has to take proportionate responsibility. Personal responsibility should be taken for the waste they generate. For example, for households MVR150 [as garbage collection fee] is too expensive but to pay MVR750 to watch TV is OK, or to spend MVR200 on coffee every day. They tell the council that they won’t vote. Guesthouses don’t want to pay MVR1,000 for waste management. Businesses should also take responsibility. It’s not just the state’s responsibility. Ultimately, the state is the people.
And there are some resorts that dump their waste on islands, and that’s not OK. For example, they’d say they will pay MVR5,000, so the islands get the money but the waste is being collected there and we have to pay millions to bring it to Thilafushi.
On climate change and adaptation
According to science, if we continue business as usual, earth’s temperature will increase by 1.5 degrees by 2030. Compared to pre-industrial times, it has increased by one degree. So 70 to 90 percent of our tropical reefs would be destroyed if we continue like this. The less resilient corals will die. We are experiencing coral bleaching even now. In the last 30 years, we had 3mm increase in sea level per year. Coral can grow faster than sea level but corals aren’t in a healthy state. They are dying. Some resilient ones are growing. That’s happening because it’s getting warmer, so that is impacting us.
The next question is, what are we going to do in the future? I think if we are to survive, our safety would be sand. This is just my opinion. If we were to raise the periphery of some islands, we have to use sand so that the salt water won’t come into the island and damage farms.
And we could live on stilts. The expensive resorts are selling villas on stilts built on the lagoon. Why can’t we live like that? We don’t have a million people yet. We have a lot of adaptation strategies that we can use. We are experiencing the effects of climate change but it wasn’t the result of something we did. It’s because other countries far from us emitted greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, harmful gases. We can’t stop it. What we can do is mitigate the impact.
There’ll be huge change in the future, 50 to 100 years down the line. But Maldivians are determined to remain as a nation. We don’t want to be climate refugees elsewhere in a foreign land. There are ways we can survive here. We have to survive as a nation. The next question is what price are we paying for that? Even if we do or don’t do anything, biodiversity will be destroyed. Life is something that keeps evolving and changing, I mean geological times, there were times when the sea level has risen. Continental shelves are there because of it. Every continent has them because of that. It’s evidence of sea level rise.
On innovative solutions
Most of the energy we use is used by the resort sector. A lot of it goes to transportation as well. Especially sea transport is something we need to address. Solar doesn’t provide speed. Here, we can create solar energy as much as we want. We can use the sun’s energy to create hydrogen. We can store it to for fuel cell technology, and by using that, we can get speed for transportation. If we can do that, the intermittent issue that comes with electricity generation would be solved as well. We can create pure water as well.
When we go a 100 meters further from the channel, we reach a depth of 3,000 meters, the surface level is 28 degree celsius. But at a depth of 1,000 meters, it’s five degrees. We can use that difference and produce energy and water by using ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). The simplest way to do that would be to put the water on the surface level in a chamber. And it is vacuumed, so it evaporates. So the cold water gets poured on top and the water gets condensed. Then we get pure water. If we did that, we could save a lot of money spent on water.
RO [Reverse Osmosis] is expensive. There are many technologies we can use. And people are even proposing them to us. We are saying yes as well, but most parties want exclusivity, but we don’t want to do that. I think that’s not in the interest of the country. What i”m trying to say is, there are technologies we can use, there aren’t any countries in a better position than us to go to OTEC. There are other benefits as well. For instance, the water from under released on the reef would make it cooler. And we could use solar pumps, it’s used even now for agriculture in other countries.
We can do so many things, and you will wonder why aren’t we doing that. We are trying to do all that. Again, we need money. We are testing wave energy at the moment, we know it’s successful. If we make wave energy life-size things, that means if we install them on the reef , they work like generators. They’ll produce electricity. Intermittency can be cut. So there are many things we can do. We can do them with funding. People will believe when we show them. In the future, there’s potential in hydrogen technology, wave energy, and water.
On the future
The Maldives has a bright future. We will see impacts of climate change, and we have to be prepared for that. Nothing stays static. It’s always changing. In the 60s they said we can’t do tourism either, who would come here, there’s no food. That’s not how it happened. Maldives is the largest renowned brand in the world and we have to take advantage of that. So I don’t feel hopeless. I’m positive about the future. It’s going to take time. If we have a strategy for the future and if we work together as a country, we can achieve it. If we change our direction every now and then we’ll go nowhere.