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Tsunami Recovery in the Maldives Islands

The U.N.'s top official for development aid said, despite the successful initial response to last year's tsunami disaster, recent attempts to return people to work and their homes has been slow. Jonathan Silvers looks at the rebuilding efforts in the Maldives Islands, which was 1500 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake.

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    It's more than three months since the tsunami inundated all 198 inhabited islands of the Maldives. Over 17 resort islands today show few signs of the disaster. After an intensive reconstruction effort, western tourists are trickling back to a country the ministry of tourism calls "the last paradise."

    In sharp contrast with the resort islands, which were rebuilt with private sector money, the so-called native islands, where most Maldivians live, are still coping with the aftereffects.

    The tsunami inundated the entire archipelago of the Maldives. Over 100,000 people, a third of the population, lost their homes. Patrice Coeur-Bizot is the United Nations resident coordinator in the Maldives.


    We could say that Maldive has been the most serious affected country in the region – many islands were totally washed out. All the schools, hospitals, housings were totally destroyed. You have 20,000 people were being internally displaced either to other islands or to neighboring islands, or we think to their own islands. As far as the economy is concerned, 62 percent of the GDP has been affected, so it's dramatic compared to the scale of the economy of this country.


    Nalafushi and Male Atoll was the hardest-hit of the Maldives. More than two-thirds of the buildings were destroyed, displacing some 500 people and shattering the local economy. Islanders get only essential humanitarian assistance.

  • MAN (Translated):

    They tell us the destroyed places will be reconstructed, but they never tell us when that's going to happen.


    Ibrahim Ali and his wife trace their ancestry on Kolamaafushi back six generations. Ibrahim is a fisherman by trade and helped feed his family by cultivating a plot near his home.


    It hurts to live in temporary shelters. The situation seems to get worse day by day. I want to work again, but there's no money to repair the boat and no work for anyone here. I'm not used to being idle, and I'm ashamed to rely on food assistance. I'm ill right now, I think from the food, maybe from the situation, which is painful.


    These are the mostly hurt islands, so no major reconstruction work is going on and it looks like a ghost town. You just see rubble everywhere. There are no trees; they're all dead. There's basically no life on these islands.


    Aishath Jalan is a United Nations communication officer, and a native Maldivian. She's been active in the reconstruction effort since the tsunami struck.


    Humanitarian aid reached the islands quickly. But in terms of other development assistance like help with restoration of livelihood, there have been a lot of difficulty in getting these things to the islands, and so this has really deterred, I think reconstruction that should actually be taking place now.


    The South Indian Ocean still teems with fish, but for Captain Mohammad Hassan a seaworthy vessel no longer guarantees a living.

  • MOHAMMAD HASAN (translated):

    The business of fishing suffered a lot because resorts closed down and we are the people who supply the kitchen. Because of the damage to the islands, we don't have the same number of tourists and so we don't have any business.

    We used to fish every day. Now we only go fishing about one week in a month. I worry about my crew. What they get depends on what the boat gets. I know a lot of families are suffering.


    The suffering will likely continue. On March 18, the Asian Development Bank revealed a shortfall of $4 billion for rebuilding programs in India, Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

    While countrywide reconstruction programs are being planned, the government and agencies like the United Nations Development Program are launching limited reconstruction programs on some of the hardest-hit islands. The island of Nalafushi is one of the first where any significant rebuilding is going on. The tsunami displaced the entire population and damaged or destroyed three-quarters of the homes.

    Work began here in early January when UNDP and its private sector partner, Banyan Tree Hotels, deployed a work crew and materials. In the past two weeks, professional builders and island residents have rebuilt 80 percent of the housing stock. Azeez Abdul Hakeem is director of the Banyan Tree construction project.


    Most of the people, they were traumatized, and especially children and elderly women. They were afraid even to talk. And they didn't have the courage to say that they could even work, because they lost everything in about ten minutes. The international community has ignored the suffering of the Maldivians. It's really a silent disaster and it will take years to rebuild these islands and for them to come back.


    The Nalafushi program may serve as a template for construction on other neglected islands. What it can't do is address the trauma on these islands.

  • ZAHEENA AISHA (Translated):

    After the tsunami, there has been some assistance from the international community, but we are not very happy about needing that aid.


    Zaheena Aisha is a 29-year-old wife and mother. She and her family survived the tsunami in fishing boats. They lost most of their possessions, but their house emerged unscathed. This afternoon, Zaheena, along with scores of other women, has come to the island administrative offices to receive basic cooking supplies, donated by a Singapore-based charity.

  • ZAHEENA AISHA (Translated):

    There's no real work for the men and no prospect of work in the near future, so we have no choice but to take what's given us. I'm sad and afraid for the future. We will have new houses, but I wonder about how we rebuild our lives and move on.


    It's a question many more people will be asking on the island in the weeks ahead, when the reconstruction is completed and the islanders are once again left to fend for themselves.

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