The tidal waves that swept across the Indian Ocean did more than take a heavy toll of lives and property in the Maldives – they confronted the tiny island nation with a threat to its survival.
The archipelago of 1,190 low-lying coral islands, dotted across hundreds of miles of ocean, has for years begged bigger, more powerful nations for action against global warming, fearing higher sea levels could literally make much of its territory disappear.
The speeding walls of water that slammed into 11 nations in Asia and Africa on Sunday, killing tens of thousands of people, marked a brutal demonstration of vulnerability.
“We are the world’s lowest-lying country,” said Mohammed Zahir, one of the country’s leading environmentalists. ”The average height of our islands is three feet.”
At a schoolyard converted into a disaster area on the main island of Male, sobbing people waited today for news of relatives from outlying islands.
At least 52 people were confirmed dead, among them two British tourists, and 66 were listed as missing.
Ahmed Shaheed, the chief government spokesman, expected the figures to rise after authorities make contact with distant atolls.
Although the number of casualties is small compared to huge tallies in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, they are comparable in proportion to Maldives’ tiny population of 280,000.
“Our nation is in peril here,” Shaheed said. “Life as we know it in this country is in some parts gone.
"Thailand, Sri Lanka, India – these are big countries with a lot of land area. They can bounce back from disasters like this. For us, it’s not so easy.”
Parliamentary elections scheduled for Friday may have to be postponed, although the government has made no announcement yet.
Shaheed estimated the economic cost of the disaster at hundreds of millions of pounds. The Maldives’s annual gross domestic product is €497.9m.
“It won’t be surprising if the cost exceeds our GDP,” Shaheed said. “In the last few years, we made great progress in our standard of living. The United Nations recognised this. Now we see this can disappear in a few days, a few minutes.”
Waves three feet or more high swept completely across many islands. They extended over as much as half of Male, a relatively large island of 0.7 square miles pouring down the narrow, sandy streets and dashing against buildings including the president’s office.
Kandolhudhoo, an island of 3,500 people in the northern atoll of Raa which had spent millions on land reclamation over the past five years, was “uninhabitable” after being completely covered by water, Assistant Island Chief Mohammed Ali Fulhu said.
Residents were evacuated. Rather than trying to rebuild their island, the people would probably have to start new lives elsewhere, he said.