By Ibrahim Hameed
The island of Kandholhudhoo in Raa atoll of Maldives had a reputation for being small in size and over populated. But until Television Maldives (TVM) showed a documentary film about the island, I did not realize how small and overpopulated that island might indeed be.
I simply could not believe what I saw. The roads were no wider than a corridor of a building or perhaps even less. The TV reporter commented: “The widest road in Kandholhudhoo is just 10 feet wide.” It was only a reflection of the level of land scarcity in that island and that of its small size.
Kandholhudhoo was one of the worst hit islands in the Maldives from the Asian tsunami. Nearly the whole population of the island, exceeding well over 3,500, have taken temporary refuge in other inhabited islands within the atoll. And now, what we hear is that the people of Kandholhudhoo want to leave that island for good.
Kandholhudhoo would have been abandoned indeed long ago, given its bleak future for the large population there. Regrettably, such an important decision seems to have been left to the emotions of the laymen, not the professionals or the right thinking.
During the past five years, the government is reported to have spent some 35 million Rufiyaa on Kandholhudhoo, simply to reclaim the land and build a harbor. It is possible that the majority of residents of Kandholhudhoo previously refused to abandon their island, as result of which the government had to undertake such an expensive project. But alas, what a haphazard plan and a waste of money.
As reported, the government is yet to decide whether to resettle or completely abandon Kandholhudhoo. Some say that the Planning Ministry and the Ministry of Atolls Development could not come to terms on this matter. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom made it clear, when he visited Kandholhudhoo after the tsunami, that the government would be respecting the opinion of the majority of people of Kandholhudhoo. The very next day, TVM quoted the Island Chief of Kandholhudhoo as saying that all of the residents of the island wanted to be relocated.
What would happen if the majority of the residents of Kandholhudhoo say that they wanted to return back to their island? Would the government undertake a costly project to rebuild that same island?
This is not only about Kandholhudhoo, alone. The wider picture here is about all the 14 islands that were abandoned following the damages caused by the tsunami.
Of course no one could think of abandoning a large island like Filladhoo in Haa Alif atoll. I have been there, and all I could say is that this island, given its size, could strategically be urbanized to allow for a large population, in addition to its 600 or so inhabitants already there.
The damages Maldives suffered from the tsunami is immense. Some 12,720 people were displaced; 14 islands were completely evacuated; safe drinking water was not available in 79 islands; electricity was not available in 26 islands; 24 islands needed telephones to be resorted; school, clinics and pharmacies were destroyed in some 50 islands. In addition, jetties and coastal areas were damaged or destroyed in many more islands. There is yet no proper account of the losses made in terms of livelihood by families in the tsunami-hit islands.
To repair, rebuild and rehabilitate all these damages and losses, it is most likely going to cost the government of Maldives millions of dollars. Why not the government decide to urbanize some larger islands in the Maldives, instead of investing to rebuild social and economic infrastructures in several smaller islands, when the final settlements for the displaced people are rebuilt? This would help to accelerate any recovery, and would also help to achieve the vision Maldives has set for the year 2020.
The biggest challenged faced in the social and economic development of the Maldives is the way the population of the country is scattered into numerous, isolated, small island communities. According to the census of 2000 (published by the Planning Ministry), out of the then inhabited 200 islands in the Maldives, 142 had a population less than 1,000, which is an enormous challenge when it comes to develop all the necessary infrastructure in each and every island.
The government seems to be aware of the enormous challenges ahead of them, which is why they have set “Vision 2020.” But the urbanizing, which is a major goal in that visions, does not seems to be going well. Out of the 11 islands where the population was less than 200 (according to Census 2000), only one or two island communities seem to have been rehabilitated in spacious islands under the project of “population consolidation.”
Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the Chief Government Spokesman of the Maldives, described the affect of the tsunami on Maldives like this: “The tsunami had within minutes set the country back by at least two decades, as far as socioeconomic development is concerned.” I totally agree with him. Now it is time to work hard for a quick recovery from this huge setback. But for that, the government needs to prove that they CAN and they CARE, not by giving in to popular sentiment or nostalgia and investing millions of Rufiyaa on an island that has little or no future, but rather by aggressively implementing beneficial strategic plans drawn up by professionals.