GREAT TSUNAMI OF 2004 IN THE MALDIVES
On December 26, 2004, Maldives suffered severe damage as a result of a massive tsunami triggered by a powerful underwater earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. The tsunami killed at least 82 people in the Maldives and caused $470 million of damage. It occurred at the peak of the tourist season. The tsunami struck the Maldives at around 9:30am local time. Residents had felt the earthquake but thought little of it. The Death toll of 82, included two British tourists. An additional 40 others were missing. The Maldives' tourist and fishing industries were severely damaged. About 10 percent of the population lost their homes. The government said the disaster set back development work by 20 years. The estimated price tag for reconstruction was around $1 billion — double the country’s annual gross domestic product. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008; Ismail Humaam Hamid, Maldives Independent, April 8, 2015]
The Maldives is so low that tsunami water swept over nearly every inch of the entire nation. There was no high ground — or even dry ground — to run to. The Maldives were not hit by destructive waves like the ones that struck Indonesia and Thailand. Rather the tsunami waves were like rising surges of water that swamped the islands. Islanders said the were no waves. Rather it felt like the islands were sinking. It took about five minutes for the water to surge and retreat.
The tsunami was caused by an underwater earthquake 324 kilometers (180 miles) south of Indonesia's Sumatra island. Waves reaching 6 meters (20 feet) were absorbed by Maldives' coral reefs before they could severely damage the atolls. The northernmost and southernmost islands suffered the brunt of the damage. More than 20,000 residents were left without homes [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
The government said the entire population was affected and development was set back two decades. While there was not the huge loss of life like that suffered in other areas, buildings and infrastructure were badly damaged. One in three people and half the homes were affected. Infrastructure in some places was completely destroyed. Ten percent of the islands were made uninhabitable.
Damage from the Great Tsunami of 2004
Thirteen islands were completely evacuated after the tsunami and 70 others experienced disruptions of water supplies and electricity. Seventy-nine islands lacked safe drinking water, 26 had no electricity and 24 had no telephones and four islands lost all communications. The infrastructure on 20 of the islands was “completely destroyed.” Harbors, jetties and sewage systems were destroyed. More than 12,000 people were left homeless. The southern and central atolls suffered the worst damage. Almost all of Huura, an island located north of the main island of Male, was submerged. Beaches, palm trees, houses and boats — and perhaps most importantly thousand of tons of sand — were all swept away.
The international airport was made unusable. Two thirds of Male was flooded. A government spokesmen told Reuters, “The damage is considerable. The island is only about three feet above sea level and a wave of water four feet high swept over us.” The government declared a national disaster.
The tsunami in 2004 wiped out of 62 percent of the GDP of the Maldives By contrast Hurricane Katrina reduced the GDP of the United States by 0.5 to 1 percent. Despite the disaster, the Government of the Maldives held parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for December 31, on January 22, 2005. Reform candidates performed strongly. Following the poll, President Gayoom announced plans to establish multiparty democracy within a year. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale]
Damage could have been much worse were it not for reefs protecting the islands. The Maldives were father from the earthquake than Indonesia or Thailand but not that much further than Sri Lanka, The reefs were credited with absorbing much of the shock of the waves. The government was given credit for making such a strong effort to protect its coral reefs. The reefs themselves emerged from the disaster largely unscathed.
The long term effects in the environment of the Maldives were minimal. A report on the Maldives by the Australian government concluded: “There has been surprisingly little change to the reef flats, beaches and islands. There is also good news for the Maldivian fishing industry, with the tsunami causing little change in fishing conditions.” The study said that while the rising waters were destructive to building they had little impact on the islands themselves.
Flooding in Malé from the 2004 Tsunami
Two-thirds of Malé, the Maldives capital, was flooded by a series of tsunami waves. "The damage is considerable," Ahmed Shaheed, the chief government spokesman said. "The island is only about three feet (one meter) above sea level and a wave of water four feet (1.3 meters) high swept over us. It is a very bad situation. It is terrible," Shaheed said after a tour of the capital. [Source: Reuters, December 27, 2004]
Reuters reported that initially the international airport was unusable. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom declared a national disaster and appeal for international assistance. The Maldives is already threatened by rising sea levels associated with global warming. "We still face the threat of sea level rise," he said. "There is encroachment of the sea on many islands, there is erosion of our beaches. We are trying to get reports from those areas. The whole of the Maldives is a tourist area so we are just hoping and praying."
Damage on the Worst Hit Maldives Islands After the December 2004 Tsunami
On 1.6-kilometer-long, 300-meter-wide Kolhufushi water surged over the eastern side of the island, crashing through banana and mangrove groves, destroying homes and a 100-year-old mosque. One resident told the New York Times, “I thought the whole island was going to go....If it had lasted any loner, everything would have been swept away. Everyone would have perished.” The resident said he watched people swept out to sea as the water surged and saw some pulled back to land as the water retreated. He clung to a coconut tree in water that reached his chin. Sixteen of the island’s 1,230 residents died or went missing. Most were under 11 or over 60. All but five of the islands 174 houses were made inhabitable. The banana and mango groves were badly damaged by salt water poisoning.
Kandolhudhoo was turned into a “ghost island.” It was completely deserted. Homes were wrecked; communications were cut off; wells were contaminated with sea water. A U.S. Marine that was part of the relief team that visited the island told AP, “I was in Fallujah last summer and saw the devastation and damage there. But it was surgical and aimed at specific targets. Here it’s total, Everything is gone.”
Kandolhudhoo is less than a kilometer square. Some said that surg of water was three meters high. Three people were killed and 50 were injured. The entire population of 3,500 was evacuated. A week after the tsunami, debris from ruined houses, pieces of televisions and toys, and rotting fish stranded by the retreating water covered the streets.
Kandolhudhoo: a Fallujah-Like Ghost Island After the 2004 Tsunami
The island of Kandolhudhoo was completely deserted, a week after the 2004 tsunami. About 3,500 people were evacuated, Homes were destroyed; power and communications cut off; and wells contaminated by seawater. United States Marine Major Max Andrews, who served in the war in Iraq, said the desolate scene on the remote Maldivian "ghost island" of Kandolhudhoo reminded him of war-damaged cities in Iraq. "I was in Fallujah last summer and saw the devastation and damage there,” he said. “But, that was surgical and aimed at specific targets. Here it's total. Everything is gone." Andrews is a member of a four-member, military-civilian US team sent to the Maldives to assess the extent of the damage in preparation for American aid. [Source: Associated Press, January 3, 2005]
Associated Press reported: Accompanied by Maldivian military officers, the team flew by seaplane to Kandolhudhoo in the Raa Atoll, about 200 kilometers northwest of the capital, Male. He said at least 1 000 US military personnel are expected to be in the Sri Lanka-Maldives area within a week to help with disaster relief and recovery, though the exact numbers and locations haven't been decided yet.
“A wave as high as three meters swept completely over Kandolhudhoo, which is less than a kilometer square and, like most of the Maldives' tiny coral islands, only about one meter above sea-level. The tsunami killed three people and injured about 50 others on Kandolhudhoo, which made its living mainly though fishing and had been one of the area's wealthiest islands. It smashed boats and single-story coral houses, and caused some buildings' foundations to collapse. The entire population of 3 500 has been evacuated.
“A week after the disaster, the island's narrow streets were still littered with debris — masonry, broken glass and household possessions like toys, books, furniture, television sets and clothes. Fish left stranded by the wave rotted inside some houses. A few dozen island men picked through the ruins to salvage possessions before returning to emergency lodgings on other islands.
Kandolhudhoo is one of 14 Maldivian islands completely evacuated due to the tsunami. Although the nationwide death toll stands at a relatively light 80, with 28 listed as missing, officials say the archipelago's low-lying nature means damage will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. A final decision on whether to rebuild and resettle the island hasn't been made yet, but most people from Kandolhudhoo say they don't want to return. The island already suffered from monsoon flooding, and many islanders feel the scale of the tsunami damage means it's not worth trying to start over. A government spokesperson said President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom visited Kandolhudhoo, telling island representatives the government was prepared to help them resettle on other islands.
Damage to the Resorts in the Great Tsunami of 2004
Twenty-one of the 87 resorts on the Maldives were closed. The Soneva Fushi in Baa Atoll and Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru in western North Male Atoll remained open. Soneva Gili on North Male’s Lanknfushi Island was closed because of widespread damage. The sea inundated most of the Four Season Resort Maldives at nearby Kuda Huras. Most of these reopened within a couple of months.
The White Sands resort & Spa was one of the worst hit islands. A tw0-meter-high tsunami wave appeared suddenly and was strong enough to send a surge of water through the resort and push guests against the walls of their rooms. Six people were injured but no one was killed. All the furniture and appliances were washed away. Guests had to sleep on the beach until they were airlifted out.
Over 17,000 foreign tourists were in the Maldives when the tsunami struck. It was the height of the Christmas-New Year season. Beachfront bungalow were flooded; their windows and balconies were shattered; power and communications was knocked out. Thousands were evacuated by hastily arranged charter flights.
The worst hit resorts were those on the eastern side of the Maldives, the side facing the tsunami. Several Italian soccer players, including A.C. Milan striker Filippo Inzaghi, Milan captain Paolo Maldini and Juventes defender Gianluca Zambrotta were in the Maldives when the tsunami struck. They were unhurt.
Asian Development Bank Tsunami Impact Report
In a report released about seven weeks after the 2005 tsunami, the Asian Development Bank said: The Maldives will need approximately US$304 million to effectively implement a recovery and reconstruction strategy, according to a preliminary tsunami disaster needs assessment released today by the ADB, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the World Bank. [Source: Asian Development Bank, February 15, 2005]
“The assessment, prepared in close cooperation with the Government of the Maldives, sets out clear guiding principles for the reconstruction strategy. It estimates total damages in the Maldives to be approximately US$470 million, which is close to 62 percent of GDP. Most of the losses were concentrated in housing and tourism, with education, fishing, and transport also heavily affected. About US$120 million of external financing will be required in the short term over the next six months.
“ADB has identified $15 million in uncommitted funds that can be used to assist with urgent needs. The World Bank will focus on education, health and housing, while ADB will focus on infrastructure (roads and communications), water supply, and power. A joint temporary liaison office in Maldives is also being considered, as only the United Nations Development Programme has a representative office in Maldives. ADB will also be working closely with other development partners, particularly the United Nations.”
Some 83 people are reported dead and 25 are missing. About 100,000 people, or a third of the population of 300,000, have been severely affected, with nearly 12,000 displaced and 8,500 in temporary shelters.
The Maldives was the only country where the effects of the tsunami were felt across the country, rather than in certain parts or regions. Total damage estimates are about $470 million. Of the 198 inhabited islands in the archipelago, 53 suffered severe damage, and 10 percent of the islands were totally destroyed. Schools, clinics and pharmacies have been destroyed in some 50 islands. According to the National Disaster Management Centre 44 schools, 30 health centers, and 60 island administrative facilities need to be reconstructed or rehabilitated. In total, around 4,000 buildings have been damaged. 79 islands have no safe drinking water and 15 percent of the water systems is destroyed or contaminated. 26 islands remain without electricity.
Relief, Tourism and the Maldives Economy After the December 2004 Tsunami
Residents of Maldives islands that were not hit so badly helped residents of islands that were hit hard. The Maldives was largely overlooked by international relief agencies. Even though its death toll was considerably lower than other places it suffered much more damage on a per capita basis. The estimated cost of reconstruction was initially estimated to be $1.3 billion. That is twice the Maldives GDP and the highest per capita reconstruction cost of any nation affected by the tsunami.
The Indian military provided assistance to the Maldives. The United States military visited but didn’t do that much. Most of their efforts was focused on Sri Lanka and Indonesia. United Nations Secretariat General Kofi Annan visited the Maldives. The Maldives needed to import large amounts of sand for construction and to replace sand that was washed away.
By some estimates 70 percent of the economy was destroyed. The economy was hit hard by the decline of tourism and the cost of rebuilding. Growth was reduced percent because the economy is so dependent on tourism and tourism was hit hard by the tsunami.
Most of the resorts were open after the tsunami. Some guest who had reservations after the disaster didn’t cancel them and went to the islands. Many tourists that were in the Maldives when the tsunami struck stayed on. The hotel occupancy rate remained at around 50 percent.
After the tsunami occupancy rates dropped to 15 percent in some places. Hotels that previously had a 100 percent occupancy had 40 percent. The Maldives tourism minster said afterward: “The Maldives is still the paradise of the Indian Ocean. Please visit us — that is the best way to contribute to the revival of our economy and our efforts at reconstruction.” Things had pretty much returned to normal by the 2005-2006 winter season.
Describing the impact of the disaster on tourism, Lisa Kalis and James Brooke wrote in the New York Times, “Because the Maldives, a popular diving destination, are so dependent on tourism, the nation's gross domestic product was expected to drop from a forecast 5.5 percent growth in 2005 to 1.5 percent, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association. Three weeks after the disaster, of the Maldives' 87 resorts, 63 were reported to be operational. Hassan estimated that most of the others would reopen in several months, but that it take a year for six that were badly damaged. "It will take a long time to get our industry back in shape," said Moosa Zameer Hassan of the Maldives tourism ministry. Some reefs close to shore have been silted over. "It will be a matter of a little more inconvenience," Hassan said. "You may have to go to the next reef for snorkeling." [Source: Lisa Kalis and James Brooke, New York Times, Jan. 16, 2005]
Economic Impact of the 2004 Tsunami
According to the Asian Development Bank: Due to the narrow economic base and the country's very heavy dependence on tourism and fisheries, the Maldives economy is likely to be the most affected of all countries in the region and will face the highest per capita reconstruction cost. [Source: Asian Development Bank, February 15, 2005]
The impact on the economy will be felt over the next 6 to 12 months. Most likely effects include: 1) Slowdown in real GDP growth to around 1 percent of GDP for 2005 (compared to a pre-tsunami forecast of 7.5 percent); 2) Rise in consumer prices of about 7 percent; 3) Doubling of the current account deficit from an expected 12 percent of pre-tsunami GDP to 25 percent for 2005; 4) Significant widening of the fiscal deficit to around 11 percent of GDP (assuming the Government implements planned fiscal measures)
“About half of the country's houses were affected and absolute poverty of 43 percent in 1998 could increase to more than 50 percent as a result of the tsunami. Equally important, the likely increase in the poverty gap among the already poor is of serious concern and needs to be urgently addressed.
“Tourism accounts for 33 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 90 percent of foreign exchange. Fisheries accounts for 7 percent of GDP. Both sectors are likely to be affected at least in the short run. The negative publicity from the disaster could lead to a short-term decline in tourism. Economic recovery will therefore depend on the speed with which infrastructure can be rebuilt. Besides tourism, the largest damages were sustained by the housing sector, with losses close to US$65 million. Approximately 1,700 houses were totally destroyed and another 3,000 were partially damaged.
“Damage to the fisheries sector is mainly situated in loss of harbors / jetties and vessels. Around 100 fishing vessels were completely destroyed. Damage to the fish stocks and reefs would be rather limited. Agricultural crops were swept away and most parts of the agricultural land are covered with salty mud leaving it unusable. New banana and mango trees could be planted and ready for harvesting in six months. Businesses and enterprises have suffered badly and will continue to do so due to direct physical impact, the decline of tourist arrivals and by disruptions to the lives of the people involved.
1) Maldives government: The government has paid off outstanding loans leased in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian Tsunami (April 4, 2019). 2) Minivan News: Maldives: Government’s claim of providing housing for tsunami victims disputed, January 5, 2017; 3) Minivan News: Government announces completion of all tsunami housing units. January 23, 2015
Tsunami Sets Back Development by 20 Years in Maldives
According to a UN Development Programme report released about three weeks after the 2004 tsunami, “Within minutes of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Maldives' economic and social progress in recent years was washed away. Drastic drop in tourism, the country's main income generating sector, is putting the country's recovery efforts in serious jeopardy. [Source: UN Development Programme, January 19, 2005]
“According to government officials, the Tsunami is a 20 year setback in both economic and social terms. "Only six days before the disaster, the United Nations had decided to officially remove the Maldives from the list of the least developed countries after the country had paid off a substantial portion of the country's debt and was looking forward to a strong performance in 2005, says Moez Doraid, UNDP Resident Representative in the Maldives."
But on the morning of 26 December these aspirations were shattered as flood waters dealt a serious blow to the tourism sector. Nearly one-fourth of the 87 resorts in the Maldives were damaged and are unable to operate. The good news is that about three quarters of the resorts remain intact and fully functional. Tour operators are now facing the daunting task of convincing tourists to return to the Maldives in an attempt to limit the expected loss of business following the Tsunami. "The pristine beaches and coral reefs of the atolls in the Maldives attract thousands of tourists from all over the world. They remain as attractive as ever and the tourism sector, including airport services continue to provide efficient high quality service, says Moez Doraid.
The Maldivians hope to get their fair share of the international aid pledged to help Tsunami-affected countries. But most of all they hope to see tourists surging in as fast as possible so they can get back to work now, at the peak of the high tourist season.
“Tourism accounts for one third of the economy and 60-70 percent when including tourism-based tax and customs revenues, and the resorts provide 25-30,000 jobs. In recent years incomes from tourism have grown significantly with a 9 percent increase of arrivals in the past year alone. These earnings have contributed to improving living standards in the Maldives, sending almost all children to school, providing jobs and buying higher education abroad for a growing number of Maldivian youths. And tourism is key to bringing the socioeconomic development back on track. Schools, health clinics, jetties, power stations and telephone lines were all badly damaged due to the Tsunami and repairing them calls for extra budgetary funds for years to come.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Republic of Maldives Department of Information, the government site (maldivesinfo.gov.mv), Ministry of Tourism Maldives (tourism.gov.mv), Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC, visitmaldives.com), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022