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Maldives Recovery Slow One Year After Tsunami Disaster


The Maldives was one of the countries most seriously affected by last year's tsunami, yet the plight of its people has been overshadowed by the dramatic size of the catastrophe on its larger neighbors Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The tiny nation's economy was badly damaged, but the government has had difficulty attracting the money it needs to rebuild.

It takes 50 minutes by speedboat to reach Guraidhoo island from the Maldives capital, Male. Guraidhoo, which has a population of 1,500, is still reeling from last year's tsunami.

On a walk around Guraidhoo, UNICEF health, water and sanitation expert, Mohamed Saeed points to the damage.

"This island is very close to the capital and even though it is not a resort, tourists come and visit here. Therefore, you see tourist shops," he said.

The shops once sold handicrafts and snacks to tourists from surrounding islands.

But, Mr. Saeed says, only one of the 10 resorts on surrounding islands that were damaged in the December 26 tsunami has recovered. So there are few tourists coming here and people here have no market for their goods.

"You see all these broken walls. These are all due to the tsunami," continued Mr. Saeed.

Mr. Saeed says the tsunami destroyed dozens of houses and several community buildings here. Many other houses were damaged and still have not been repaired. However, the villagers were lucky in this part of the archipelago. Only four people were killed by the waves. But more than eight hundred were left homeless or without their livelihoods.

About 140 people still live in a nearby tent encampment.

Abou Bakuru Ali shares his small tent with three other people. It is dark, hot and bare inside. His ailing wife lies listlessly on a mattress. Both he and his wife remain traumatized months after the tsunami destroyed their house. Mr. Ali explains his boat was destroyed so, he can no longer go fishing.

"When this happened, he was outside fishing. So when he came back, he saw all this devastation. He was really shocked and now … when he sees the sea, the water, he feels … afraid and then he goes for a while just thinking of that. He is still not feeling very comfortable," said the interpreter.

The Maldives has a population of 290,000. Nearly 2,000 islands, in 26 atolls, stretch over 900 kilometers in the Indian Ocean, south of Sri Lanka.

One third of the nation's 200 inhabited islands suffered serious damage in the tsunami. The death toll of about 100 people was relatively low compared with the tsunami's total toll of more than 200,000, most of them in Indonesia. But the Maldives' infrastructure, tourism and fisheries industries were devastated.

Close to 8,000 houses were damaged across the country, about a quarter of them destroyed. A year after the tsunami hit about 11,000 people still live in temporary shelters and tents.

Sean McCarthy is with the United Nations Development Program and is handling shelter for tsunami victims. He says rebuilding the lost homes is an expensive logistical nightmare.

"The Maldives does not have a manufacturing industry to any extent … and all of the materials are imported," he said. "Even to the extent of having to import sand, which may surprise you, and stone for making concrete because of the environmental degradation caused by using - formerly, they used to use coral. And a lot of damage has been done to reefs and that has been stopped."

The tsunami has injected renewed vigor into the Maldives' safe-island program, which started 20 years ago. Chief government spokesman Mohamed Shareef says the idea is to relocate people from very small islands to larger ones where they will be better protected from disasters and where they can earn a better living.

"In good fishing areas, for example, or closer to processing plants, development centers or islands with fertile ground …. And also it relieves a lot of burden on the government to duplicate everything because at the moment, we have to have a hospital on each island, a school, all the infrastructure has to be duplicated," explained Mr. Shareef.

The Maldives suffered losses of nearly $500 million in the tsunami. That is 62 percent of its gross domestic product. While foreign donors have come up with about $320 million for reconstruction work, the government is still short of what is needed by $150 million and is seeking more aid.

The Maldives government figures it will take about five years for the economy to fully recover. However, some optimistic signs are beginning to appear. The crucial tourism industry, which suffered a crippling blow, is on the rebound.

It will take longer for the fishing industry to recover. One of the problems is that the Maldives does not have the money to rebuild harbors to handle large fishing vessels, or to replace all the islanders' lost boats.

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