Maldives: From Waste to Energy

With toxic smoke polluting its blue skies and plastic debris clogging its white sand beaches, an out-of-control problem with garbage has replaced rising sea levels as the most immediate threat to the economy of the Maldives. Thanks to help from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), however, a permanent and sustainable solution to the problem should soon be in place.
Maldives
Maldives
Maldives
Maldives
Maldives
Maldives
Maldives
Maldives
Maldives
AIIB has partnered with the Government of Maldives and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to provide finance and expertise for the construction and operation of a modern waste-to-energy plant. Once up and running, it will be the final component in a comprehensive, end-to-end system for processing and safely disposing of the bulk of the archipelago state’s refuse.

Ahmed Murthaza, director general of the Maldives Ministry of Environment, minces no words when asked about the urgency of the issue. “We are facing an environmental disaster,” he says. “We promote our country as the best tropical holiday destination in the world. Without a solution, I cannot see us continuing to do so.”

The Maldives’ problem with garbage is a result of three decades of waste management neglect. Since the beginning of the 1990s, domestic refuse from the capital Malé and surrounding islands has been shipped six kilometers west for dumping at a site called Thilafushi. This was originally a submerged reef. Today, it is a 10-hectare mountain of garbage known as “Rubbish Island”.

Open vessels are used for transport, so no small amount of the shipped waste ends up in the water. Toxic leachate from Thilafushi’s millions of rotting tons seeps into the surrounding sea. Since dumping space ran out a decade ago, garbage arriving at the island has been openly burned, with untreated smoke darkening the air for miles around. This is on top of the Maldives’ outer islands, which simply burn their waste without shipping it out, or just dump it into the sea.

The problem has now become so bad that both the country’s many luxury hotels, and fishermen, who make up the second biggest sector in the economy after tourism, are complaining. The latter openly worry about plastic choking their equipment, as well as poisoning the marine food chains that support their catch.

With ADB as the lead cofinancier, AIIB is lending USD40 million toward the USD151-million cost of an integrated waste incineration plant. The facility will be designed, built and operated under the Banks’ supervision for 15 years. Operating to European standards, it will burn 500 tons of garbage every day, treat its own flue gas, monitor emissions, process residues and safely bury those that are not marketable.

ADB and AIIB have highly similar missions, so the partnership has been a natural one. “This is our first cooperation with ADB in the country and communication has been excellent. We have been in close contact since the beginning,” says AIIB Principal Investment Operations Specialist Toshiaki Keicho, who is leading AIIB’s team. Keicho has decades of experience in urban development and waste management. His team includes experts in finance, procurement, environmental engineering and social development.

The project itself also fits neatly into AIIB’s strategy of fostering modern and sustainable infrastructure. Undertakings like this often come with auxiliary benefits and this is no exception. By producing an excess 8 MW of electricity, for example, the plant will reduce the amount of polluting diesel now burnt in the Maldives for generation. It will sell not only power, but also derive income from scrap metals, incineration bottom ash and tipping fees for resort waste delivered at Thilafushi.

Naturally, the waste-to-energy plant will be planned with an eye on climate change and the rising sea levels that threaten the Maldives over the long term. Adaptive measures will include strengthened seawalls, elevated structures and machinery, and drainage systems adequate for future rainfall. The project is consistent with the Bank’s mission to build Infrastructure for Tomorrow. One of the hallmarks of such infrastructure is projects that are resilient, adaptive and sustainable and that address the challenges of climate change.

Keicho acknowledges that a lack of relevant expertise in the Maldives has been a challenge. But the project’s method of implementation should remedy this. “The beauty of a design, build and operate contract is that it strengthens not only local competencies but institutional capacities too,” he says. “Fifteen years is certainly long enough to train up local managers and staff to a level at which the running of the plant can be handed over to them.”

As of May 2021, the process to procure an international contractor is well underway. COVID-19 has not been a significant obstacle to early planning and procurement, which to a large extent can be performed remotely. With the epidemic’s end in sight, the hope is that construction should start at the end of the year, for completion and the start of operations in 2025.

Global warming is the biggest long-term danger to the Maldives. With this project, AIIB is doing its part to help manage the threat of climate change by taking advantage of available technologies to help generate renewable energy. This way, AIIB is also helping ensure the long-term sustainability of the tourism industry on which the country's economy depends.

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