Waste islands in paradise

Interview with Prof. Dr. Florian Kapmeier (ESB) and Professor Paulo Gonçalves, PhD (USI)

Photo: Martin Zinggl

By Jessica Stepanek

Whenever pressing news dominate public perception, other important issues of our time fade into the background. Spiegel author Martin Zinggl addresses one such topic in his article: “Die Müllinsel: Das Abfallproblem der Malediven” (in german). In his visual story the journalist refers to insights based on research by Professor Dr. Florian Kapmeier and co-author Professor Paulo Gonçalves, PhD from the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI), Switzerland. They have analyzed the tension between economic growth and waste management and published their insight in their paper entitled “Wasted paradise? Policies for Small Island States to manage tourism‐driven growth while controlling waste generation: the case of the Maldives”. It is published in the 60th Anniversary Issue of the System Dynamics Review. In the following interview, both authors also provide an insight into their research and collaboration.

Prof. Kapmeier and Prof. Gonçalves, what prompted you to take up this line of research?

KapmeierMany people perceive the Maldives as “paradise”, with turquoise oceans and white sandy beaches. Over the past 40 years, the number of tourists traveling to the Maldives have increased exponentially. This has led to economic growth through the creation of jobs, thus strengthening the tertiary sector. To manage all the waste created with increasing tourist numbers, the government decided to turn one of the atolls, Thilafushi, into a waste island. Today, trash piles up more than 20 meters – the highest elevation of the Maldives. It is a toxic time bomb. I was surprised that the government allows this to happen – and I wanted to find out more about the underlying reasons and possible long-term consequences of this policy: how does all the waste endanger the Maldives’ natural beauty, the main driver of its attractiveness to tourists – and finally economic growth?

Paulo and I both attended the System Dynamics Conference in 2012, and as I had liked to work with him for a long time, I told him about this topic and asked him whether he would like to study it with me more closely.

Gonçalves: When Florian told me about it, I was immediately intrigued by the idea, and fascinated about the possibility of conducting applied research in the paradisiacal setting of the Maldives...(smiling). Jokes aside, upon closer consideration, I quickly realized that the Maldives situation while peculiar, was not unique, and fell within a class of problem faced by Small Island Developing States (SIDS). While early on we were motivated by the possibility of working together on an interesting topic, it became clear that we had stumbled upon an important and general problem to study.

How did you examine the issue?

Kapmeier: We developed a generic system dynamics model of the tension between tourism-driven economic growth and environmental degradation. We kicked off our analysis by collecting and analyzing data of the Maldives of the past 40 years. We then transferred these insights and research results from the existing literature into our model. In the center of the model is the island’s attractiveness with its drivers: supply-demand balance, price of tourist stays, awareness of environmental pollution, word-of-mouth, and crowding of the tourist resorts.

Gonçalves: When analyzing data, we realized that tourism soared over the past four decades, accounting for about one-third of the country’s GDP today. So, tourism is an important source of the country’s revenues. The data also revealed that the government plans to double existing bed-capacity that took then 40 years to build, in only 6 years. A key challenge in our analysis was the calibration of a large mathematical model to broad time-series data. Despite the good availability of data, we had to establish new calibration methods to tackle the specific case of the Maldives.

So you have also successfully mastered challenges in the research process. What are the main insights of your study?

Gonçalves: We generated three different policy scenarios sets until 2050: promoting growth, curbing growth, and managing waste. The main insight is that the Government’s envisioned growth policy (scenario 1) will eventually lead to high environmental degradation. As a second insight, we found that the policies that limit tourism (scenario 2) are more promising in the long-term, also from an economic point-of-view: By introducing policies that limit tourism and increase access prices, the Maldives can improve its economic position while maintaining long run environmental health. This is very counter-intuitive.

Kapmeier: And third – and also counter-intuitive, we identified that policies focused only on better waste management (scenario 3) are also self-defeating in the long-term. This is what Martin Zinggl highlights in his story in Der Spiegel: waste management policies might help prevent environmental degradation in the short-term. But they maintain the attractiveness of the tourist destination, which in the long-term enables even higher tourism growth. This will eventually lead to more infrastructure development and to more future waste and environmental degradation.

Limiting growth therefore seems to be the best approach. How can the findings of your study be used?

Kapmeier: The analysis is of interest for all decision-makers and policy designers in Small Island States. It helps them better understand the tension between the desire to grow economically and managing the waste. It enables them to reassess current policies and decision-making on tourism and waste, considering a long-term perspective.

Gonçalves: However, as the findings are counter-intuitive, they are also difficult to implement. Perhaps most challenging is the fact that in the short-term continued tourism growth is much more attractive than any other alternative. So, to make the most of our insights, decision makers must focus on the long-term development of their countries. To invite discussion and possible follow up research, we have made the model freely available online. It is also fully transparent and documented.

Thank you very much for the interview!