Thu, Jan 20, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Maldives looking to shift residents to `safe' islands


Dejected fisherman Naushad Ali looked at the sea, the source of his livelihood as well as the partial des-truction of his home in the tsunami. He plans to stay, despite government plans to relocate one-quarter of Maldives' 300,000 people to islands considered safe from the sea's fury.

"Which place is safe?" Ali asks skeptically.

He hopes the government or an international relief agency will help repair his home, one of thousands in the Maldives that were pounded in the Asian catastrophe.

The government is grappling with the arduous task of providing relief to distant islands. Relief workers must ferry all aid in boats, a logistical nightmare. The population of the Maldives is scattered across 200 islands in the Indian Ocean, some of them with less than 500 people.

The number of casualties in Maldives -- 82 killed and 26 missing -- is a tiny fraction of the toll in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand in the Dec. 26 tsunami. The death toll across 11 countries has exceeded 160,000.

The tsunami swamped up to 40 percent of the Maldives, an Indian Ocean string of 1,192 coral atolls 480km southwest of the southern tip of India. But the islands' low elevation cut down the height of the waves, making them less deadly.

Ahmed Shaheed, the chief government spokesman, says it makes no sense for people to live in 200 low-lying coral islands scattered across nearly 1,000km of Indian Ocean. The average size of the islands is 16 hectares.

"Our main recovery program is based on safe islands program. It's a sort of new paradigm in the country's development. We are identifying 4-5 larger islands. We are going to build an environmentally protected zone on their perimeters, have some higher buildings which can serve as shelters against storms and rise in water levels," Shaheed said.

The government, he said, wants to implement the program over two or three years. Much will depend on the flow of foreign aid.

"Right now, by our estimates, US$90 million have been pledged. The actual amount realized is only 10 percent," Shaheed said.

The government says it needs US$200 million over the next year for temporary shelters, health care, food and water and to rebuild schools and homes. Shaheed said US$1.3 billion was needed over the next five years for reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Shaheed said it would be easier for the government to install desalination plants, build proper hospitals, schools and other facilities for the residents in the so-called "safe" islands.

Even before the tsunami struck, the government was planning to shift people from tiny islands to larger islands with sea walls and buildings on higher ground.

Using the lure of free housing, the government shifted 1,500 people to larger islands with protected reefs and good harbors in the past two years. But a similar plan failed in the 1960s over fears it would destroy traditional village culture. Many people returned to their original homes after a short while.

The government will build homes for those who shift to safe islands, but they will be required to pay back the cost over the next 20 to 25 years.

Those killed in Maldives on were mostly small children and the elderly. Affected islands were awash with water for up to five minutes.

The government says the tsunami left nearly 15,000 people homeless. Jetties and harbors are gone. Schools, health clinics, roads, telephones and diesel power generators were badly damaged.

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