Returning to Dhuvaafaru, eight years on from the Indian Ocean Tsunami

Published: 26 December 2012 11:05 CET

By Jerry Talbot

For Jerry Talbot, returning to the Maldivian island of Dhuvaafaru was a gratifying experience. Jerry served as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) head of delegation in the Maldives when an office was opened in 2005 to coordinate reconstruction efforts following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami which struck on December 26, 2004.

It was an exciting day, filled with hope for the beginnings of a new life, when I was last in Dhuvaafaru Island at the beginning of 2009. This was the day when the President of the Maldives officially handed over to the community the biggest single reconstruction project ever undertaken by the IFRC.

It had taken four years, from when the massive Indian Ocean tsunami swept across the Maldives, displacing the entire population Kandholhudhoo, one of the smaller islands in the northerly Raa Atoll.  With no reef to protect it, the island was deemed unsafe and the Red Cross Red Crescent undertook the task of building an entirely new community for the population of 4,000 inhabitants on neighbouring Dhuvaafaru, a previously uninhabited, but safer island. The new community comprised of 600 houses, schools, health centre, roads, water and sewage systems and independent electricity supply.

Returning almost four years later as part of the conclusion to an external evaluation of the project was a rare opportunity to see how it had changed the lives of the people who were so happy at the handover ceremony in 2009.

Would the community have ‘bedded down’ in this new environment? Was the infrastructure appropriate and sustainable? Any resettlement project brings challenges, and we wanted to learn from this experience to influence our future operations, ensuring that we applied best-practice when embarking on post-disaster recovery programmes

The first thing that struck me was the creative way in which people had adapted their houses to their needs. The original design had been a simple two bedroom house. Extensions and modifications had been made: some people had altered them to create space for small shops, small gardens had been planted. When the construction was completed, there were rows of uniform houses but four years on, a community had organically taken shape. Houses with their own identity, adapted to suit each family's individual needs.

As we walked down the street, I was immediately impressed by the tree planting that had taken place, even trees running down the middle of the wide roads. When we started the project we prioritised keeping the trees and vegetation, even labelling it the ‘Green Island’ project. Sadly the construction contractors had other ideas and the Islands vegetation was virtually all cleared before breaking ground. Today, it is truly green, and becoming greener.

We met the two Indian doctors staffing the modern health centre. We checked the sewerage system and found that the relatively high-tech solution of pumping effluent over the lagoon and off the reef remains fully functional - not the case on a neighbouring island where a more sophisticated approach by another agency had proved too much for the community to sustain.

The schools and public buildings were in good condition, though the harsh monsoon and saltwater conditions had led to some small problems in the primary school that the Education Department will address.

Perhaps the major issues relate to the challenge women have faced in diversifying their livelihoods. These island communities are heavily dependent on fishing. On the original island of Kandholhudhoo, the fishing grounds were nearby and women played an active role in fish processing. Now, being further away from their traditional fishing grounds, their men are at sea for several days at a time, and the opportunities for women to help in drying and processing the catch are not the same.

Another issue was that some families who lived close to each other originally, had to be separated when the houses were originally allocated on Dhuvaafaru. This has caused some readjustment amongst traditionally tightly knit family groups; an inevitable consequence of families being more dispersed over an island of 44 hectares compared to their original nine hectares of overcrowded living space on Kandholhudhoo .

One area where we could have improved upon was around consultation with the communities and involving them to a greater degree in the project while the island was under construction. This has always posed a challenge. When they left Kandholhudhoo, the population was living on four islands. Communication needed to be a constant process with them, and also with the host communities who accepted these people into their lives for four years.

There are always lessons to be learned, but in the case of Dhuvaafaru, surprisingly few major ones. The satisfaction surveys carried out by the evaluators confirmed the feedback we received from people on the island; overall, they were happy with their new homes and community.