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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 January, 2005, 16:54 GMT
Paradise lost in the Maldives?

By Barnaby Phillips
BBC News, the Maldives

The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the tsunami-struck islands of the Maldives on Sunday in his tour of countries affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

His tour was to include ruined plantations, destroyed villages, as officials warn about the possible collapse of the tourist industry on which the country depends.

The tsunami has shattered the lives of the population.

Adamu Abdul-Qayyoom, a retired fisherman, has lived 74 years on the Maldives and had never seen anything like it.

The island of Kandolhudoo
Kandolhudoo was defenceless against the tsunami waves

An earthquake more than 2,000km (1,250 miles) to the east produced a giant wave that swept across half an ocean and then washed over the defenceless island of Kandolhudoo.

Along with hundreds of other people, Adamu ran to the mosque on the middle of the island.

There they climbed some stairs and waited for a terrifying five minutes until the water receded.

When Adamu came down, he found his home in ruins.

Now the government of the Maldives is urging the people of Kandolhudoo to abandon their island for good.

It is simply not economical to rebuild an entire settlement and, to avoid future catastrophes, the government would prefer to concentrate the people of the Maldives on fewer islands which can be better protected.

Ancestral home

But it will not be easy for Adamu to move.

When I asked him how he feels about it, he breaks down in tears. It is left to his 20-year-old nephew, Sodiq, to explain.

Satellite image of one of the islands of the Maldives
We are the only country hit by the tsunami to face a national economic disaster
Maldives government spokesman

"We young ones want to leave Kandolhudoo, but the old ones are not so sure".

Some elderly people say they cannot leave the graves of their ancestors.

The story of Adamu and Kandolhudoo is just one example of how the tsunami has hit the Maldives.

This is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world: a nation of 1,190 coral islands, almost all of which are only a few hundred feet long, and no more than three or four feet above sea level.

In the long run, global warming, and the subsequent rise in sea levels, may make the Maldives uninhabitable.

But for now, the people of the Maldives are struggling to recover from the tsunami.

Protective corals

Miraculously, only about 80 people are confirmed dead, with about 20 still missing.

"I'd always assumed that if a tsunami hit the Maldives, we would all be finished," said one senior tourist official.

There is much speculation as to why the death toll is not higher, and also as to why some islands have been hit so hard, whereas others are virtually untouched.

Map of the Maldives

Coral reefs helped protect some islands.

Most people here say that the tsunami came not as a giant, crashing wave, as in Indonesia, Thailand, or Sri Lanka, but as a fast-moving swell.

"We Maldivians are good swimmers, so that is why most of those who died were very old, or very young," said Sodiq on Kandolhudoo.

But government authorities say that to concentrate on the relatively low death toll is to miss the point.

"We are the only country hit by the tsunami to face a national economic disaster," says one spokesman.

The challenges of restoring clean water supplies and re-building houses, schools and hospitals are daunting.

The islands of the Maldives are spread out over hundreds of kilometres. Because most of the islands are too small to receive aeroplanes, heavy construction material will have to be transported by boat.

Cancelled holidays

And the tsunami has wreaked havoc with fishing and tourism, the mainstays of a very small economy.

Many fishing boats have been smashed to pieces.

And while most tourist resorts are still open, 19 have had to close for repairs.

The government says these repairs will cost about $100m, but a sharp downturn in bookings is likely to put the total losses in the tourism sector at over $300m.

Only three tourists - all British - were killed - but the news of the tsunami made many people so frightened that they simply cancelled their holidays.

On one island resort close to the capital Male, we saw how the tsunami had torn through expensive holiday bungalows, which will now have to be completely rebuilt.

An anxious manager told us that in a normal year, he would expect to be fully booked in January.

"But I only have 22 rooms occupied. If this carries on, what am I going to do with my 300 staff?"

Why the Maldives islands need tourists


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