Tsunami May Accelerate Maldives' Dilemma: Relocate or Perish

Shopkeeper Mohammed Ibrahim stands among the ruins of his once-idyllic island home and explains why he wants to leave forever.

KANDOLHUDHOO ISLAND, Maldives — Shopkeeper Mohammed Ibrahim stands among the ruins of his once-idyllic island home and explains why he wants to leave forever.

"I love this place -- it's my homeland. But I don't want to face this again," says Ibrahim, whose village on remote Kandolhudhoo island was one of hundreds in this archipelago nation devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunamis.

Little more than a week after the disaster, it's clear that lifestyles and attitudes among the 280,000 people here may never be the same. Communities that have existed for decades face being broken up as thousands of people are relocated.

Government officials and many residents are reassessing whether it makes sense to live on hundreds of low-lying coral islands scattered across 620 miles of ocean.

Perhaps most importantly, Maldivians' faith in the sea has been shaken.


For centuries, the lives of most people here have depended on the sea, through fishing and in the last few decades, tourism. Every Maldivian lives within a few hundred yards of the water; small children are allowed to play by the surf with a freedom not seen in most countries.

"For hundreds of years we've seen the sea as our friend. We make our living from it, and it's all around us," said Mohammed Hussain Shareef, a government spokesman. "We never thought of it as an enemy, an engulfing monster."

At 82 killed and 26 missing, the human casualty toll in the Maldives has been much smaller than in other Asian nations struck by the waves and the earthquake that spawned them. The United Nations says the overall toll across the region will exceed 150,000.

Officials here say the Maldives escaped a worse fate because the tsunami didn't gain height and break over the low-lying islands in the same way as it did over the coasts of large Asian countries, and because of Maldivians' experience in surviving in the water.

But in some ways, the psychological impact has been greater than the physical damage.

Because the Maldives is so low -- the average height of its islands is just one yard, making it by some estimates the world's lowest-lying country -- a huge proportion of its area was hit by the tsunami.

Officials estimate up to 40 percent of the land area was underwater at one stage. As many as 100,000 people are receiving some form of emergency aid after the disaster, more than one third of the population.

And even before the disaster, the Maldivians were deeply worried about global warming and irregular weather patterns in the Indian Ocean.

If sea levels rise, much of the country could be obliterated in coming decades, even in the absence of natural disasters; a combination of higher water levels and further earthquake- or weather-related events might be catastrophic, officials say.

That's why some Maldivians, although aware the next tsunami may not come for decades, if ever, say they're seriously considering emigrating -- not necessarily at once, but in time for their children or grandchildren to establish lives in safer environments.

Many people have long had the vague impression that Australia or a Western country will accept the population of the Maldives if environmental conditions become untenable later this century.

Now people are wondering if they should wait until then.

"I'm thinking of finding a place to move my family. You have to be realistic -- the year 2050 is probably the limit for this country," says Ali Waheed, a businessman on the main island of Male.

Moving abroad isn't an option for the mass of poorer Maldivians. In some places, the disaster has strengthened people's determination to shore up the defenses of their islands by reclaiming land and building breakwaters.

On the hard-hit southern island of Vilufushi, for example, village elders are discussing an ambitious scheme to raise the height of the island by 16 inches and change its shape by filling in a lagoon on the side where the tsunami hit.

But such schemes would require millions of dollars in aid from the government or the international community -- and even if they're implemented, it's unclear whether they would work.

Other communities are likely to follow the example of Kandolhudhoo, a northern island of 3,500 people which is one of 14 that were evacuated after the disaster. Though many of those islands will be rebuilt and resettled in coming months, Kandolhudhoo looks set to be permanently abandoned by its population.

Near Male, a massive land reclamation project is underway that could eventually settle up to 50,000 people, nearly a fifth of the nation's total population.

But a big population shift could destroy the traditional village cultures which make the Maldives unique and which the government, by limiting foreign tourists' contact with villages, has been trying to protect.

"We face the task of completely rebuilding 14 islands. It makes sense to consider the sustainability of these places," said Ahmed Shaheed, another government spokesman.

Source: Associated Press