Maldives: building a community in the middle of the ocean

Published: 22 October 2007 0:00 CET

Janine Gray, Australian Red Cross in the Maldives

In the middle of the Indian Ocean, far away from highways that could transport building and construction materials for 600 houses and all the infrastructure that goes with it… the Red Cross is taking on the challenge of redeveloping a community from scratch.

Janine Gray from Australian Red Cross takes a look at the progress 14 months after construction began.

It’s a muggy 31 degrees in the Maldives and time for lunch. We are invited by Solih, the island chief of Kandholhudhoo to join him for an impressive spread of tuna steak, reef fish, potato curry, roti, another type of tuna curry and coca cola. Despite the uncomfortable heat, everyone is hungry so the line is long at the buffet table. The tuna steak is typically overcooked but the reef fish is deserving of seconds.

Solih was island chief of Kandholhudhoo for six years before it was completely destroyed by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Three people lost their lives and everyone had to abandon their densely populated homes to seek temporary shelter on five neighbouring islands in the Raa Atoll. That was three years ago, and the citizens from Kandholhudhoo are still living in IDP camps while they wait for their new homes to be built on Dhuvafaaru.

At times it feels like a long wait, especially in the IDP camps which are hot, cramped and uncomfortable. But as Michael Wardick of the Federation explains, the logistical challenges of building a community in the middle of the ocean are immense. ‘Absolutely everything has to be imported and run through customs in Male before being transported by dhoni (boat) to Dhuvafaaru. The blocks for the housing foundations, the cement, sand, steel, all the building equipment, the dump trucks, fork lifts, the light fixtures… all the food for the workers, even the workers themselves have to be imported and the consultants too,’ he adds with a laugh. It’s a logistical challenge to say the least and from an engineering perspective it’s ‘pretty amazing.’

Pretty amazing indeed when you consider just what’s involved in building 600 houses, four schools, a community centre, administrative complex, multipurpose hall, sports ground and a hospital. The 300 or so workers who ‘haven’t seen their wives for the last year’ are from all parts of the Southern Hemisphere. They look tired, hot and grubby, but determined to get the job finished.

For the beneficiaries who get monthly tours of Dhuvafaaru to see the progress on their new island to be, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive. Grandma Ameena, as she likes to be called, recently visited Dhuvafaaru for the first time and was in awe of what she saw. ‘I came here to see for myself what the others have been talking about. I wanted to see with my own eyes, and now I am speechless. I am in awe. By god’s will I will bring my husband here one day to show him this place.’

It’s a strange concept to get one’s head around, but for the Maldivian people it’s quite common to move to other islands. Many of the islands are barely above sea level and prone to being washed away – literally.

Kandholhudhoo was a very small overpopulated island, so there were already plans to move before the tsunami, says Solih. It had a population of 3,600 with the majority of the population under the age of 20. The island was very low to the sea, with an average elevation of 1.2 metres.

The Kandholhudhoo community was doing relatively well economically due to the healthy fishing industry off its shores. In fact, explains Solih, the fishermen continue to fish from their former island home. ‘It is very rich for fishing which is why it was a popular community. They fish from Saturday to Thursday and then come back to their families for a few days before repeating the cycle. In a good week they could earn 3000 rufiyaa (around 265 US$ or 188 Euros or 315 Swiss Francs).’

It is likely they will continue that pattern once they move to Dhuvafaaru, says Solih. ‘This is a good place. There are so many advantages to this island compared to our previous island. This one is big and there are opportunities to extend this island by reclaiming.’

Dhuvaafaru was chosen as the island for redevelopment because it’s one of the ‘safer’ islands – at least it’s on higher ground, says Michael. ‘I think in time, due to the size of the population and the facilities that will be here it may become the Atoll capital.’

In addition to the usual infrastructure plans such as a sewage system and waste management centre, there are also plans to provide a renewable energy system for Dhuvaafaru. The Maldives were the first country to sign the Kyoto Protocol and ratify it in 1998. In a report put out by the Maldivian Government, the main goal of the national energy policy was to ‘enhance national energy security by promoting indigenously available renewable sources of energy.’

The community expressed overwhelming support for wind and solar technology to be introduced on Dhuvaafaru so as to supplement the fossil fuel driven power system.

It is expected that the Kandholhudhoo community will be able to move to Dhuvaafaru in 2008.

In the meantime, Grandma Ameena will be telling her people to be patient. ‘Everyone knows me in the village because I have a big mouth. I’ll be talking about this for weeks. I think I can justify myself a bit more, now that I know I’m right. I am so happy I cannot say anything more.’