Long before climate change was a phrase that was universally recognized, back when Donald Trump was the least of environment advocate worries, the world experienced one of the most devastating natural events in human history.
It is a day of personal loss to this writer as well, as one of the lives lost was that of an irreplaceable friend and room-mate. Eighteen years old at the time of her passing, Zameera Mohamed had been visiting her island home in Meemu Atoll, and was on a trip to a nearby sandbank at the time of impact, along with three of her sisters - none of whom returned home. Her brothers, fighting for their own survival on a dinghy along with an infant sibling, had no choice but to watch as their sisters were engulfed within a mess of froth, saltwater and debris.
Unspeakably tragic, no doubt, yet the event depicts only a fragment of the pain felt by such a close-knit nation. Nearly everyone experienced some form of loss; being driven to the brink of bankruptcy, the wiping out of entire islands, losing loved ones or knowing someone who had.
On December 26, 2004, 10 percent of Maldives was left uninhabitable within the span of just 15 minutes.
Giant waves nearly 10 feet tall wiped across the lowest lying country in the world, momentarily submerging everything in contact with the same salty waters that the islanders’ livelihoods depended on. Two-thirds of Male’ was flooded, boats casually passing by cars, motorcycles atop trees, the typically aloof city folk driven to hysteria – an entire atmosphere thick with the weight of sickness and sorrow.
The time that followed was fraught with nerves and confusion. Entire atolls were devoid of any outside communication for hours that turned into days.
Safe to say, for those that bore witness to the disaster the tsunami left in its wake, the trauma is still difficult to talk about.
Being the first such incident in the country’s recorded history, even emergency responders and volunteers that travelled to devastated islands had made no preparations for the sheer agony they would witness. Accounts of entire families’ savings being washed away, towns turned into piles of rubble, bodies floating ashore. In the years to come, symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) would affect not just the witnesses of the event, but of the aftermath as well.
With a death toll of 82 people and 40 reported missing, the mourning nation declared a state of national disaster. Countless lives were forever changed.
The first ever National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) was established following the 2004 tsunami, aimed at building a better, more resilient society. The centre focuses on community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM), and introducing community emergency response teams (CERTs) that act as the ‘disaster army’ in an island community.
Maldives received aid grants from all over the world, but faced more losses that could remotely balance the scale. In addition to loss of vital infrastructure, the island nation took a crippling hit to its main source of income. The world renowned tourism destination took a severe dip from fully booked for the holiday season to over 85 percent vacant, overnight.
According to the Joint Needs Assessment, the total asset losses experienced by Maldives totaled USD 472 million, equaling 62 percent of the country’s GDP.
Local contributions included:
- Donations of clothing, food and money from 12 atolls
- Two taxi centres provided free transport for the injured and weak
- Chamber of Commerce contributed MVR 3.3 million
International aid included:
- Pakistan sent Naval Ships, Indian Coast Guard sent Dornier Aircrafts
- Singapore Motorola Office donated 20 radio sets
- United Nations allocated USD 100,000 for food, hygiene, sanitation and shelter needs
- Norway, Singapore and Japan provided aid
- Scottish Water sent drinking water
- India sent 20 tonnes of relief
These are just a few archived examples of the generosity regional and western allies provided to Maldives. However, despite the international community providing generous aid by way of financial, medical and infrastructural loans and donations, the economic gap remained vast, and much of the Maldives’ wastelands remained as such for an inordinate amount of time.
While many centre the blame on the administration of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose 30-year presidency was doused in allegations of corruption, no investigations were conducted into the allocations of relief and funding.
Even claims made as late as 2016 by the then-Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar stating that the administration of former President Yameen Abdul Gayoom had completed provision of housing for families who lost their homes, was challenged by various local media outlets and individuals.
As with previous administrations, Yameen’s presidency was not free of accusing fingers that held the government responsible for not completing pending housing projects for victims of the tsunami at an earlier date.
President of the Island Council of Vilufushi, Thaa Atoll, an island made so uninhabitable in 2004 that surviving islanders were relocated to Buruni until repopulation was made possible in 2009 thanks to the efforts of Red Cross, was one of the key figures that insisted more than 40 families were still yet to receive permanent shelter.
Nevertheless, NDMC has maintained that all displaced victims are now residing in new homes, noting that it has also conducted risk assessments, training and awareness raising programmes in a number of islands.
In early 2005, Maldives participated in a conference on coastal zone protection and management in regions affected by the tsunami hosted by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Cairo, Egypt. The meeting concluded with the formulation of a set of twelve ‘Guiding Principles for Post-Tsunami Rehabilitation and Reconstruction”.
In April 2012, Maldives Meteorological Centre (MET) issued a tsunami warning following an 8.9 magnitude earthquake that took place in South Sumatra, Indonesia. A few schools and many government offices were promptly evacuated. Phone services were also interrupted, and panic ensued. Many people in Male’ and other islands took to the streets. At approximately 1932 hours, the MET office confirmed that it was a false alarm. Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre cancelled its alerts an hour earlier.
In addition to reliving the traumatic events eight years earlier, and despite NDMC’s supposed best efforts, the incident served to prove that Maldives remained far from prepared for the possibility of another similar disaster.
In fact, for some islands like Kolhufushi, Meemu Atoll, it was on February 6, 2018 that islanders performed their first ever Tsunami drill in hopes of potentially reducing lives lost, numbers of people affected, and economic damage caused by both natural and human-induced hazards. The exercises was the second chapter run in Maldives, conducted by UNDP in cooperation with the government of Japan, along with NDMC, the Maldivian Red Crescent Society, the Maldives National Defence Force and Island Councils, as part of an initiative covering 90 schools across 18 countries in the Asia Pacific region.
All said and done, if you are too young to remember the tsunami, count yourselves lucky. First time voters in the 2018 Presidential Election would have been just four years old - far too young to remember the havoc these beautiful blue waters once wrought.
If you were nestled away in the safe haven of a comparatively larger city settlement, count your blessings. In a country where there is nowhere to hide, it is nothing but good fortune to have survived.
Our gentle, sweet Zameera was not so lucky. This year, she would have celebrated her thirty-second birthday. Happily married with a couple of kids, or a career of her own and accolades to boot. Perhaps all of the above.
Regardless, those of us that survived are armed with the memories of what our country lost and the ease with which an entire vision of the future disappeared. Many first time voters that cast their ballot in the 2018 Presidential Elections are too young to remember more than the cautionary tales their parents recounted. Thus, though the responsibility falls greatly on the shoulders of the ones who have the knowledge to impart it, all must unite to make a difference.
What the layman might have missed is that scientists around the world nodded their heads in agreement over the fact that one of the reasons preventing Maldives’ from a fate like that of neighboring Sri Lanka, which experienced over 30,000 unconfirmed deaths and left 1.5 million displaced, was the presence of our coral reefs. Each atoll’s topography and bathymetry coupled with the deep channels that separated them, decreased the power of the tsunami, particularly as it arrived at low tide.
For some of the northern atolls in particular, it was offered that in addition to geographical placement, the prevalence of mangroves that acted like bio-shields greatly reduced the effects by absorbing much of the impact.
Despite lying so very close to the epicenter of the quake, spatial dispersion and logistics aside, in a way our little nation is blessed in its own way. Although our shelter is next to none, our heads barely above the water, smack in the middle of the equator and vulnerable in every way - our people have managed to survive for hundreds of years.
In this time of newly emerging threats, as the dark cloud of climate change looms closer and closer, and we reminisce about the worst of times - it is apparent that the clock keeps on ticking. The planet calls for the voices of survivors to issue global warnings, to lead the fight against environmental destruction.
Although the 2004’s Boxing Day Tsunami resulted from the third largest earthquake ever observed, estimated to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs - the severity and frequency of previously rare natural occurrences have increased greatly over the last few years.
Indonesia 2006 - the Yogyakarta earthquake killed 5,700 people, injured tens of thousands, and caused financial losses of USD 3.1 billion
Indian Ocean 2016 - the deadliest since 2010, the North Indian Ocean cyclone season killed 400 people
Japan 2016 – the Fukushima earthquake killed fifteen people. The area was evacuated immediately once a possible tsunami with waves of 9.8 feet was detected
China 2017 - Thousands died and more than a million people affected during major flooding in southern and central China
South Asia 2017 - Floods and landslides killed hundreds in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, millions homeless, thousands of schools shut down
Indonesia 2018 - the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami claimed 2,100 lives
India 2018 - Southern state of Kerala suffered the worst monsoon flooding in 100 years, displacing over one million people and killing more than 350
In 2017 alone, millions died, and an estimated USD 306 billion was racked up worldwide in economic losses.
Thus, it seems that a wakeup call is hollering at the very base of our ear drums, wailing whether we choose to listen to it or otherwise. Now, more than ever, as people of flatlands surrounded by oceans, Maldivians must remain vigilant.
Fourteen years after the Boxing Day Tsunami, as we celebrate the 13th National Day of Unity, let us honor the lives and livelihoods that were lost by ending the socially-imposed silence. Speak of the tsunami, describe your experience and don’t hold back on the emotional turmoil. It is the responsibility of those who remember, to warn the generations that come after.
In every setting, Maldivians are the ideal candidates to speak of climate change. We are, or we should be, natural advocates for this planet. We are, after all, people of the ocean, living barely above it. We must not let the rest of the world dictate the destiny of Maldives and doom it to sink by 2085, accepting a fate governed by global emissions, the least of which are our own.
A collective voice urging the Earth’s inhabitants to abandon their denial and recognize that climate change has all but ensured the inevitability and prevalence of such devastating natural occurrences, may just be the turning point needed to turn the tide in favour of island nations.