Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
describes the effect of the tsunami on his country, and warns that global warming poses an even greater threat to environmental security

On 26 December 2004, we woke up to witness the terrible reality of our environmental fragility. The tsunami created by the Sumatra earthquake that morning swept through the entire archipelago of the Maldives with awesome fury, taking lives, devastating infrastructure, crippling our economy and washing away decades of hard work and toil of our people. This disaster was indeed unprecedented – the first of its kind, and the worst natural calamity ever experienced in the Maldives.

Daunting challenges
We have embarked on the formidable tasks of providing emergency relief, rebuilding our lives and livelihoods, and reconstructing our nation. These are daunting challenges indeed: 82 people are known to have died and 26 are missing, and 13 islands had to be completely evacuated. Over 15,000 people have been left homeless and many are facing food and water shortages. Our tourism and fishing industries have been crippled. Of the 87 resorts, 19 had to be closed. These need major reconstruction to operate again. Many islands lost their fishing boats, ruining their primary livelihood asset. The total damage is estimated at well over $1 billion.

As our current focus is on relief and rehabilitation, we have not yet had the opportunity to assess the impact of the disaster on our fragile environment. The signs, however, are ominous. Our island vegetation is gradually dying as a result of the flooding and intrusion of salt water into the groundwater. Any loss of vegetation would further increase the environmental vulnerability of our tiny islands. Even more importantly, according to scientists, our fresh groundwater reservoirs may require several years of rain to recover, replenish and be drinkable.

Important decisions
The tsunami disaster is an opportunity for us to reflect on the fragility of small island states and other low-lying coastal areas. It is also a time to make important decisions to avert such catastrophes or minimize the losses of natural disasters in the future. On 26 December 2004, the tsunami waves receded within hours. However, the waves and flooding from sea-level rise triggered by global warming will not recede. The damage will be unspeakable and we will all become environmental refugees.
The tsunami disaster is an opportunity for us to reflect on the fragility of small island states
The Kyoto Protocol has entered into force, enabling us to improve environmental cooperation and achieve targets established for the reduction of greenhouse gases. But, alone, it is not sufficient to deal with what is a bleak environmental future for our countries. We need to do more towards the protection of our global environment.

The tsunami disaster has united the world in a way we have not witnessed for a long time: this unity should be harnessed to create mechanisms to deal with future environmental calamities. It has also shown that ecological catastrophes do not stop at national borders and that they are more damaging to small island states. Thirteen countries on two continents were directly affected by the tsunami, and a number of other nations lost their citizens in the disaster. At this time of global mourning, let us be more strident in forging a global partnership to deal with our common environment

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is President of the Republic of Maldives.

PHOTOGRAPH: Jochen Tack/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid

Complementary issue:
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom: Averting catastrophe (Oceans) 1998