In a country whose sovereign territory is almost 100 per cent ocean, there are an unexpected number of cars, trucks and motorcycles packed into the Maldivian capital.
Some 70,000 vehicles buzz around the roads of Malé, one of the world’s smallest and most densely populated capital cities. That’s almost one vehicle for every two people living on the small, cramped atoll.
At rush hour, as cars and swarms of motorcycles scrape by each other in the narrow lanes, you could be forgiven for forgetting you’re in a country better known for its pristine beaches than its traffic chaos.
“Transport is one of the most challenging areas in Maldives and we need to be very careful with the system,” says Aishath Nahula, Maldives’ Transport Minister. “Every year you can see more and more vehicles in Malé.”
While most of the country’s almost 1,200 islands are relatively air pollution-free, air quality in Malé is on the decline as more and more people move to the city. Already 40 per cent of all Maldivians—150,000 people—are squeezed on an island just twice the size of New York’s Central Park.
The government is concerned with this growing issue. “We are lucky that we have good air quality in most of the islands,” says Environment Minister Hussein Rasheed Hassan. “But in Malé… we have particulate matter that is relatively higher than the average in the nation. This is becoming a major problem.”
It is not only wheeled vehicles emitting the unhealthy pollutants. The country’s large ferry network connects Malé to neighbouring atolls, and the boats mostly run on heavily polluting diesel engines. As the capital builds upward to accommodate new arrivals, construction dust is also playing a role. And the smoke from the open burning of waste on nearby Thilafushi Island can blow over Malé, depending on wind direction.
To help get out ahead of the issue, the government recently launched its National Action Plan on Air Pollution at an event marking World Environment Day. This year’s theme for World Environment Day was #BeatAirPollution, and saw numerous policy commitments from governments, businesses and citizens around the world.
The Action Plan, supported by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, provides for a system to catalogue the air quality data and determine the best actions to take to curb pollutants in the air.
Minister Hassan sees this as a vital step in preventing problems like the pollution-related illnesses that kill 7 million people every year. “We would like to monitor and understand what kind of air we are breathing in, and we want to ensure the air remains clean and healthy. We want the Maldives to have the best air for the people, that’s our ambition.”
In addition to the Action Plan, Maldives is also looking at a number of other measures to curb air pollution, such as improving public transit and replacing vehicles with electric models. “My focus is on environmentally friendly vehicles,” says Minister Nahula. “I want to settle these vehicle issues in Malé, because this is the biggest challenge we are facing here. I want all the vehicles to change in the future to environmentally friendly models.”
UN Environment is supporting these efforts, providing technical assistance to encourage the adoption of an integrated transport system prioritizing public transport with cycling, walking and electric mobility powered by renewable energy.
Minister Hassan does not want to waste time waiting for the problem to worsen before acting. “We would like to address this now so that we don’t have to spend millions and millions of dollars in the future.”