Maldives: Dhuvafaaru island comes alive

Published: 24 December 2008 0:00 CET

Patrick Fuller, International Federation

Nasim Mohammed is a worried man. In about one week’s time he will lose almost 90 per cent of the customers in his restaurant. Nasim opened the Coral Garden Café on the Maldivian island of Ungoofaaru barely six months ago. Since then, he has been doing a roaring trade thanks to the patronage of the neighbouring islanders of Kandholhudhoo who have been displaced on Ungoofaaru since their island was swamped by the tsunami for the past four years and was deemed uninhabitable by the government.

“I’ve been getting about four hundred customers a day. People from Ungoofaru only sit and drink coffee but the Kandholhudhoo islanders like to eat out a lot,” sasy Nasim, whose anxiety is linked to the impending exodus of the 2,600-strong Kandholhudhoo community.

On 14 December 2008, the army, coastguard and police moved in to start relocating each family to their new homes on the nearby island of Dhuvaafaru, where the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has undertaken the biggest single construction project in the organization’s history.

Thriving community

When work began in April 2006, the 40-hectare coral island was uninhabited. In just under three years, and at a cost of 35.6 million Swiss francs, it has been transformed into a thriving community that now boasts 600 new houses, three schools, one mosque, a health centre and an island administration block complete with auditorium and sports stadium.

Creating an entire community on a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean has been a massive undertaking that has presented the IFRC with plenty of logistical challenges. As the island lies 185 kilometres north of the capital Male, thousands of tons of cement, construction materials and machinery all had to be brought in by ship together with the 600-strong labour force, many of whom originate from countries as far a field as China, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Since leaving their home on Kandholhudhoo, Ali Wahid, his wife Haseebath and their family of six children have lived in a cramped three-roomed plywood shelter on Ungoofaru.

Open verandah

The shelters are built in long rows separated by a narrow ten foot wide track, and the street serves as an open verandah for families who pass the time reclining in chairs outside their shelters. Elderly men and women suck on water pipes or play cards while speeding motorcycles dodge groups of children running in and out of each others’ shelters.

“We are living on top of each other here,” says Ali Wahid. “I only have to step out of the house and I’m almost in my neighbour’s front room.”

Inside, the corrugated iron roofing makes the shelters stiflingly hot. Ali’s family has been sitting outside the hut all morning waiting for the army to pick up their belongings for the move to their new home on Dhuvafaaru. “I’ve been looking forward to this day since I arrived,” says Ali who captains a local tuna fishing ‘Dhoni’ and has come back to dry land to help his family pack up the house.

Community relations

Despite their close geographical proximity, relations between the communities on Ungoofaru haven’t always been easy. For the first month each family was lodged with a host family before they were moved to the shelters. The local school struggled to cope as student numbers doubled overnight.

Some of the younger generation have now intermarried, but the Kandholhudhoo islanders outnumber the host community on Ungoofaru so the relationship has been strained at times. “I think everyone is happy now the move has begun,” explains Safwan Amjad, recovery field officer with the IFRC. “We have been making regular trips to Dhuvafaaru with groups from Kandholhudhoo so that they can see the progress on the island. They just want their own island again.”

After the tsunami, the 3,700-strong population of Kandholhudhoo was scattered over five different islands in the Raa Atoll. Now, the tight-knit community will finally come together again after four years of separation.

Careful planning

The move has taken careful planning. The IFRC began by bringing all of the heads of households from all four islands to Dhuvaafaru to take part in a lottery where beneficiaries drew a number which assigned their place in a queue to select their new home. Island by island, families are being moved to Dhuvafaaru over a two-week period. The population on Ungoofaaru is the last to go. Trucks piled high with beds, mattresses, cooking pots and personal effects roll onto to huge army landing craft before making the half-hour journey across over to Dhuvaafaru.

Ali and his family arrive on the island by the coastguard’s speedboat. He is given a huge bunch of keys to every door in his new home and the family amble down the sandy road to their house, which is at the northern end of the island close to the mosque. The journey to their house is less than a kilometre, but it takes over an hour as Haseebath and her daughters stop to admire the new school and greet old friends and extended family members. As they pass each block of houses they are invited in to be plied with food and drinks in keeping with true Maldivian hospitality.

Hassan Ziyad is the IFRC’s senior water and sanitation field officer. Since the relocation process began, his mobile phone has been ringing non-stop. He has been working 14-hour days responding to the teething problems that arise when families take possession of their new homes. Hassan logs complaints coming in from a team of volunteers in the community and then deploys electricians and plumbers who make house-calls to fix the problems.

Minor emergencies

“It’s usually simple things like water pumps or lights not working although we have had to deal with a few minor emergencies,” he says. “Yesterday, two children managed to lock themselves into a toilet.”

As well as overseeing the physical construction of the community, the IFRC has also been closely involved in training-up community members to run and maintain the island’s infrastructure. Until the Island Development Committee is elected in January, volunteers are responsible for keeping basic services running. Hassan has provided specialized training to two groups of volunteers from the community who look after the island’s state-of-the-art powerhouse and water and sanitation systems.

Dhuvafaaru’s power supply is provided by three enormous diesel generators that require 24-hour monitoring. For their water supply, islanders rely upon the seasonal monsoon rains. Each home has been equipped with a 2,500-litre rainwater harvesting tank and roof guttering to capture every precious drop of rainfall.

Something useful

Ali Hussain is one of the volunteers monitoring the island’s sewer system. His regular job is driving a taxi, but now he ensures that the six pumping stations around the island function smoothly, “I volunteered because it was a chance to learn a new skill and help my community, I wanted to do something useful,” he says.

The morning after the move, Ali Wahid and his family wake up late. “We were up till two this morning. More than ten families came to visit us last night,” says Haseebath as she sets about unpacking. “It’s so quiet and peaceful here, my ears feel so alive. When I woke up I thought I was in England! This place is so huge. Our old bedroom in the shelter was like a storeroom.”

Their new home is surrounded by swaying palm trees and sits adjacent to a picture postcard white sand beach. The family venture out on to the beach for the first time. “It’s like being on holiday,” exclaims 15-year-old Kudee, Ali’s youngest daughter. “On Kandoloodhu there was no beach and hardly any trees.”

Beautiful island

Ali’s 19-year-old son Jameel was actively involved in the internally displaced persons committee on Ungoofaaru. With other young volunteers, he took the initiative to organize awareness sessions with the community around waste management and the need to care for the environment. “People have the habit of dumping their garbage in the street and on the beach, but we have to change that thinking and teach them about recycling,” says Jameel. “This is a beautiful island and we need to keep it that way.”

The family decide to visit Kandholhudhoo to take a last look at their old home. With no reef to protect it, the tsunami surged over the entire island, although only three people were killed. Compared to the open space of Dhuvafaaru, Kandholhudhoo feels cramped and claustrophobic. At only four square hectares the island is one tenth the size of Dhuvafaaru. Narrow winding alleys run the breadth of Kandholhudhoo. The island is barely 500 metres across and an arm span is all that separates the small two storey houses that face each other.

Now it is a ghost town, totally deserted except for a few stray cats and a handful of fisherman who make a living from drying fish on racks spread across what used to be the town square. Trees have taken root and grown up through the roof of Ali’s two roomed family home.

Old possessions

“It’s hard to believe that six of us slept in this one room,” he says wistfully. Clothes and old possessions lay strewn about the floor and cooking pots still hang on the kitchen wall. “When the wave came, the government told us to leave. I tried to lock some of our things in an upstairs room but they were all stolen,” says Ali.

For Aishath, Ali’s eldest daughter, the visit rekindles difficult emotions. “I almost drowned that day,” she recalls. “The water flooded into the house and came up to my neck. Luckily a neighbour dragged me upstairs.”

Returning to Dhuvafaaru, Ali reflects on the future. “In some ways the tsunami was the best thing that could have happened to us. Our prayers have been answered, we have a new island and the community is back together again. What more could we hope for?”