On Hanimaadhoo, an island with few televisions but abundant mobile phones, conversation is king.
And at the first dedicated hotel (distinct from the handful of local guest houses) on the Maldivian island a few hundred miles south of India, owners Mohamed Arif Ali and his wife Fathimath Rifga make a point to interact with their international guests.
Currently there are a few guests at the As’seyri Tourist Inn who are scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., and elsewhere using the island as their base of operations as they study how Asian air pollution affects atmospheric turbulence and cloud formation in the skies over the inn.
Rifga’s mealtime chats with the head researcher, Scripps climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan, helped set the stage for a March 10 event that she and her husband hope becomes everyday practice. With Ramanathan acting as honorary grand marshal, the hotel owners led a clean-up of trash at the island’s harbor and downtown area.
Surrounding the hotel in roadways and marinas and at the bases of coconut trees are piles of household trash, sometimes partially burned for convenience though the island does have waste collection. The garbage mars what would otherwise make Hanimaadhoo resemble even the most exquisite Caribbean resorts with its turquoise warm waters and shoals that allow one to wade waist-deep a quarter-mile from shore.
Ramanathan “is the expert who knows this and is concerned about it,” said Ali in an email. “His positiveness made me want to make him a part of it. In my belief, his participation in this event made it much brighter and gave us so much courage as well. Since he himself participated in the event and checked on us at often intervals through out the day, it really gave a kick to our team.”
The couple, hoteliers only since January, had already demonstrated their commitment to the environment well before the trash pick-up event. Hanimaadhoo, with one of the Maldives’ five commercial airports, typically serves as a way station for international vacationers who use the island as a jumping off point to five-star resorts on tiny atolls in the Maldives’ northern region. The two want to make the island a destination in its own right, hoping to appeal to those who want an authentic Maldivian experience at a nightly rate about one-tenth of those charged by the resorts where $1,000-a-night rooms are common. They hope also to appeal to eco-friendly tourists. They built As’seyri Inn themselves using native reclaimed wood and other building materials. The room lights are compact fluorescent and the planters are fed by rainwater channeled from the roof.
“I wonder about the water that comes from my wash basin’s tap each and every morning I brush, and somehow I cannot open the tap to its fullest because deep in my mind, I think I will waste the water. So you see it starts there,” wrote Ali. “I had support from my team, colleagues, friends, and officials as well. I wanted to show them how beautiful our environment can be if we unite and make it as a united concern and responsibility.”
The hotel didn’t exist during any of Ramanathan’s previous visits to the Maldives. Beginning with a 1998-99 field campaign called INDOEX, Ramanathan has on several occasions taken advantage of the location of the Maldives to monitor a phenomenon that has come to be known as the atmospheric brown cloud, a mass of air pollution as much as three kilometers (2 miles) thick. Separately, the chain of 1,200 atolls that comprise the Indian Ocean country has become a celebrated cause among those pushing for global warming controls, owing to the imminent threat posed by sea-level rise. With most Maldivian islands only a few feet above sea level, the country has drawn world attention with its attempts to secure land in other countries to which it could relocate its 500,000 citizens if they are forced out of their homes by encroaching waters.
In recent years, Ramanathan has amassed evidence that air pollution is a major contributor to climate change, perhaps second only to carbon dioxide emissions. Much of the data came from the observatory at the northern tip of Hanimaadhoo and from instruments mounted on unmanned aircraft launched at the local airport.
One implication of Ramanathan’s research is that controlling air pollution, especially in places like Asia, could have an immediate mitigating effect on global warming because of the short-lived nature of the greenhouse warming agents contained in that pollution. In northern India, he is testing out his own premise in Project Surya, a long-term experiment to observe the climate change effects of replacing common homemade wood-burning stoves with cleaner-burning alternatives. The project has humanitarian as well as scientific goals, since the widespread use of dirty-burning cookstoves has been linked with premature deaths and reduced crop yields throughout the developing world.
“It is heartwarming to witness young entrprenuers like Rifga and Arif take a lead in improving their environment and in particular to see how the whole village council participated in the clean up,” said Ramanathan. “I now have visions of Hanimadhooo becoming a model village for rest of the Maldives, thanks to the youth leaders of Hanimadhoo.”
The clean-up brought out several dozen Hanimaadhoo residents outfitted with commemorative t-shirts and garbage bags, as well as members of Ramanathan’s research team. It was a win for a pair of new entrepreneurs and for a couple that feels connected to nature.
“In the end, it’s a message to the entire island and neighbor islands that they should care too and take responsibility,” said Ali.
— Robert Monroe
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