Maldives Faces Opportunity in Wake of Tragedy

Op-Ed / Opinion | 2 March 2005

Seeing dejected fishermen on Guraidhoo Island, one of the many tsunami-devastated islands, it was hard to find words of comfort for those who had been through such trauma. The giant waves had swept away not only their homes and boats, but also damaged a nearby resort where the fishermen had sold their catch to tourists.

Though it is of little immediate comfort to those who have lost their assets, livelihood and market, the Maldives has an opportunity in the wake of the tragedy to encourage its sparse and scattered people to group together more for greater protection from natural disasters and for better access to social services.

The Maldives is the smallest country to have been battered by the tsunami, but it suffered the greatest damage in proportion to its tiny population of 290,000, one third of whom were affected either directly or indirectly.

Its 199 inhabited islands are arranged in spectacular atolls, whose coral reefs helped shield many from the full force of the tsunami and kept the official tally of deaths relatively low at less than 100.

Nonetheless, because its average elevation is only 1.5 meters above sea level, the tsunami engulfed almost the entire country for several minutes, causing widespread damage to property and crops. Sea water contaminated drinking wells and washed away topsoil, damaging crops and individual home gardens.

Ironically, the Maldives had been removed from the United Nations list of least developed countries just before the tsunami exposed its inherent vulnerability. The country is heavily dependent upon tourism, which contributes 60 percent to 70 percent of gross domestic product.

The tsunami closed 20 percent of its resorts and occupancy in the remaining resorts plunged to 40 percent from 100 percent. By wiping out fishing fleets and equipment on many islands, the tsunami also dented the fishing sector, which accounts for half of exports.

A crucial step in helping people back on their feet is to lure back the tourists. Restoring services and an aggressive marketing campaign should achieve this fairly quickly.

As well, however, the government would like to move its widely dispersed population onto fewer islands that can be more efficiently and economically provided with social services. The idea is not novel, but held little appeal for those deeply attached to their homes, even with little access to social services.

After the evacuation of many islanders - 13 islands have been evacuated and 35 are in need of extensive repairs to sewerage systems and other vital infrastructure - many may be more open to a fresh start elsewhere.

Even before the tsunami, the Maldives was concerned with global warming and possible rising sea levels.

Since the tsunami, the government is pursuing its ''safe islands'' strategy with renewed impetus. This aims, through a process of voluntary resettlement, to concentrate atoll populations on a smaller number of islands and would incorporate measures to protect against future disaster and mitigate its effects.

Provisions to make some islands safer include sea walls, areas of high ground, taller and stronger buildings, and buffer stocks of provisions.

The safe island strategy takes on new meaning with the opportunity of turning enforced reconstruction into a well planned development program.

Everyone in this island nation either suffered from the tsunami or knows someone who is a victim. In time, perhaps, everyone may look back and see that out of the tsunami came some long-lasting benefits, too.