World Red Cross Red Crescent Day: reducing, reusing and recycling in the Maldives

International Federation in the Maldives

This year's World Red Cross Red Crescent Day will take place on 8 May. The theme of the event is "together for humanity" and around the world, National Societies will be organizing events and activities to showcase the importance of working together to make vulnerable communities safer and better prepared. As part of a four-part series to mark 8 May, we look at how one partnership has helped communities in the Maldives clean up their isolated homes.

Many of us take for granted that we can leave our garbage and recycling bins out once a week and they will be taken away. Yet in the Maldives, a country of 1,200 small islands spread across a thousand kilometres, managing household waste has been anything but simple. And it's a task that was made practically impossible by the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean almost two and a half years ago.

"Before the tsunami, any garbage that couldn't be burned ended up in the water or was scattered on the ground or beaches," explains Jo Sanson, the Australian Red Cross' country representative in the Maldives. "After the tsunami, it was even worse because dangerous and sometimes toxic debris was everywhere."

Thanks to a joint effort by the Australian and Canadian Red Cross Societies, excellent progress has been made in cleaning up 74 of the worst affected islands. Already, 55 islands have been cleared and 28,000 cubic metres of debris have been removed as part of the 11.3 million Swiss franc (US$9.4 million / €6.9 million) clean-up and sustainable waste management programme. The remaining islands are expected to be cleared by mid-2007.

"I didn't see waste as an issue before but now I realize it is clearly the biggest environment and health issue facing the Maldives," continues Inaya Abdurraheem, project officer for the Maldives Ministry of Environment. "There hadn't been a good way to deal with all the garbage until now."

The programme also involves building waste management centres on each island to encourage communities to separate waste into organics, recyclable materials and other garbage.

"Our island was so dirty before and there was a bad smell," says Hussain Rafeen, a resident of Naalaafushi. "The advice and assistance from the Red Cross 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."

Developing sustainability

Jo Sanson is also working with communities to develop sustainable waste management plans. "Composting and recycling is really a new idea here," she explains.

"It's exciting to see how quickly some communities are embracing this programme 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 where people can bring their waste and separate it into plastics, metals and hazardous waste. Organic matter is composted or burned.

For the island nation, finding ways to dispose of garbage properly and learning how to recycle and compost promotes a healthy environment, supports tourism and the economy, and helps protect the delicate coral reefs. It's also an excellent example of how working together can make a real difference in people's lives.