For tourists, the Maldives are a paradise on earth. But in December 2004 the Tsunami unleashed devastation on this small island nation in the Indian Ocean. One year on and the tourists are back. There’s no sign of destruction around the resorts, but travel away from the tourist islands and there’s a different side to life in the Maldives. More than 8,000 homes were damaged or destroyed – over 11,000 people on isolated islands are still waiting for homes and communities to be rebuilt. Meanwhile the country still has a shortfall of US$150 million for the international assistance it requested. Life follows the stories of some of those made homeless in the disaster, finds out why the reconstruction efforts are taking so long and assesses the long term impact of the Tsunami on this small island nation.
Three hundred and fifty thousand Maldivians live on small scattered islands spread over an archipelago stretching nine hundred kilometres, from North to South. Clustered into 26 atolls, most islands are less than a square kilometre in size. Male – the Manhattan of the Maldives – is the capital and the administrative centre.
Eighty-three people died here when the wave hit. But despite the relatively low death toll, the Maldives did not escape lightly. The impact of the Tsunami on this atoll chain has been significant. In 2004 over half a million tourists flew into the country – a record high. But in the first six months of 2005, post-Tsunami tourist numbers fell by 50 per cent.
As Richard Scurfield, Special Representative of the World Bank in the Maldives, points out: ‘The damage to the Maldives was far greater in terms of its impact on the overall economy. The damage to the economy in the Maldives was about 70 per cent of the GDP, and that’s many, many times greater than the impact on the other Tsunami-affected countries.’
Husnee Moosa is one of twenty five thousand Maldivians employed in the tourist industry. He works as a front of house receptionist at the Hakuraa Resort. This resort was one of the most severely damaged. But within months it was receiving visitors again. ‘This is very important to me the job is very important for me – if I am at home I don’t get this amount of money – there is not much work to do – only fishing – I think it’s the very best place to work here.’
Husnee’s family live on the adjacent island Kolhufushi – twenty minutes by speedboat, two hours by local Dhoni boat. Their island – like many others the tourists rarely see – was severely damaged by the Tsunami. Seventeen people died here. Islanders are still waiting for their homes, and lives, to be rebuilt.
Mariyam Ibrahim was born, and grew up, on the island of Kandholhudhoo. The inhabitants of her devastated island were split up, and now live on five different host islands in camps. Her island was one of the most populated in the country – home to about three thousand people. The whole island was devastated by the Tsunami’¦
Children especially suffered. Unicef worked with a whole network of national teachers who were trained to identify signs of trauma in young children and then went out all across the islands to counsel kids who had lost a relative or who had seen massive destruction for the first time in their lives. The rebuilding has started, but the distances between islands are huge. Jill Clements of the British Red Cross says: ‘British Red Cross are rebuilding houses that we hope are more resilient to future crises including tidal surges floods and Tsunamis’¦ Certainly in the Maldives, agencies are not used to sea-based environment. We are good at aeroplanes and trucks. But when we talk about the distances – you know we are talking about hundreds of kilometres of sea to travel over.’
And Anna Tibaijuka, Director of UN-Habitat, makes a plea for water and sanitation: ‘In both the immediate relief and the area recovery and reconstruction, water and sanitation plays a key role. Water and sanitation has to be looked at in terms of distributing bottled water, coming in putting up their big tanks but also repairing the facilities’¦’
For over 25 years, the Maldives has been run in a paternalistic sort of way by the same President, Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom. The Tsunami has made some people question this model, and the Government admits that there must be changes. Ismail Shafeeu, Minster responsible for Disaster Management, comments: ‘The kind of lifestyle we have had for thousands of years of little communities dispersed all across a huge archipelago. In today’s world, this might not be the way to go. We need to discuss among our communities that have been affected by the Tsunami. And they need to make up their minds where they want to go for the future.’
One year on, and of the 5,200 damaged homes, some 800 have been repaired, while over 2,000 still need to be completely rebuilt. In 2006, five new island resorts are due to open and it’s predicted that tourism in the Maldives will be back at an all time high. Only time will tell what the long-term social and political impact of the Tsunami will be on the Maldives.
For the latest on the Maldives reconstruction programme, visit the Official Website of the Maldives National Disaster Management Centre. MaldiveIsle.com – Tsunami update has more information. And you can adopt an island through the UN Development Programme, whose website has an illustrated page on the impact of the Tsunami.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has pages on the Tsunami and its aftermath. The Care Society in the Maldives assists tsunami-affected victims in the islands.
For an edited transcript of an interview with Ken Maskall, Unicef Representative in the Maldives, click here.