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Reflections on the Commonwealth’s relief effort following the 2004 tsunami

23 December 2014

A decade ago a devastating tsunami crashed into parts of south and south-east Asia killing hundreds of thousands of people and injuring many more.

Five of the seven most affected countries were Commonwealth members: Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Maldives.

In the Maldives 80 people died - a small number in comparison to other countries, but the damage to the country’s infrastructure was unprecedented. 

It took nearly three hours for the tsunami to reach the shores of the Maldives. Triggered by an earthquake off the north-west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, the tsunami was the second largest in recorded history.

The coral reefs that make up the unique archipelago saved the Maldives from the massive loss of life experienced in other countries, but the impact was, nonetheless, extreme.  

One hundred thousand people, a third of the country’s population, were severely affected. Huge waves, some over four foot high, uprooted trees, flattened homes and hospitals, and contaminated fresh water supplies. Widespread damage was caused to the country’s infrastructure and its economy – which is heavily dependent on tourism and fishing.

The scale of the damage

Thirty hospitals and health centres were destroyed or damaged and there was a shortage of drugs and medical supplies. A major disease outbreak had to be contained.

Seventy nine islands were reported to be without water and 26 had no electricity. Schools, clinics and pharmacies were destroyed in over 50 islands. Damaged sewage systems threatened islanders with terrible health risks. Fresh water supplies had been contaminated and there was a food shortage.

The loss of health personnel following the disaster left thousands without access to medical care. The most vulnerable in society – young children, pregnant women and the elderly - were living a day-to-day existence.

Help arrives

Many staff at the Commonwealth Secretariat joined forces to assist Commonwealth citizens in their darkest hour.

In response to an appeal for relief assistance by the Government of The Republic of Maldives, Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, sent out a request for doctors in the Commonwealth to join the relief effort.

Health experts within the Commonwealth Secretariat drew on their contacts to spread word that medical practitioners were needed. Commonwealth member countries supplied details of doctors, nurses and counsellors who could be available at short notice to work as volunteers.

In response, over 500 enquiries were received - nearly 200 from qualified doctors. Staff sifted through applications, verified papers and checked references to ensure that only doctors with the right qualifications and experience were sent to the country.

Once the checks had been made, applications were submitted to the Maldives’ Ministry of Health for final approval.

Dr Samson Aigbekaen, a doctor from Nigeria, answered the call for help. He said: “When I arrived in the Maldives, I was shocked by the extent of the disaster. I felt like crying when I saw the destruction.

"I was imagining what would happen if this had happened in Nigeria, in my country, what would happen to my family, my mother, my father, and my brother.”

The doctors were expected to work under difficult circumstances, with little or no medical equipment. They were separated from their families for three to twelve months at a time, living in makeshift homes with limited access to fresh water and food.

Despite their own trauma, local people recognised their sacrifice and extended a hand of friendship, which made them feel at home.

Dr Ranjana Srivastava from Australia, reflecting on the positive experience she had had in the Maldives, said: “Working in the Maldives was a transformative time in my life. For a start, I felt I had emerged from the bubble of first-world medicine to work at a grassroots level with little help and scant resources.

"It was a good reminder of just how therapeutic a human touch and a kind word can be even when there is nothing more sophisticated at hand.”

Twenty four doctors from six different Commonwealth countries took part in a relief effort in the Maldives.

Displaced

The tsunami led to mass displacement. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes because they had become uninhabitable or were completely destroyed.

The island of Kandolhudhoo in the northern atoll of Raa had been home to 3,500 people. Residents had to be evacuated to other nearby islands, placing enormous pressure on already stretched health resources.

In Guraidhoo, an island in the Kaafu atoll, 460 people had to be evacuated to the capital Malé, which was already heavily populated.

On Kohlufushi Island, where the tsunami had destroyed all but four houses, 1,000 people were made homeless.

On the island of Burunee, the population of 500 swelled to over 1,500 as displaced people from neighbouring islands were taken in.

Each account from the doctors describes the challenges they faced as they arrived on the islands, but also the warmth and kindness they received in return.

Rewarding work

The modern Commonwealth’s membership spans every corner of the world. There are countries of all sizes, at different stages of development, with a multiplicity of religious and cultural groups all working together. Diversity in the Commonwealth is a tool to promote a spirit of understanding and tolerance.

Its members, regardless of size and wealth, are equal and it was important that its core values were respected and reflected throughout the Maldives programme. In practice this meant a shared respect for the local population and the volunteers who worked as part of a team alongside local staff to support the relief programme.

“I saw the curiosity on the faces of people. I felt I may have been the first black African to set foot on their soil. However, I tried to integrate myself into their society by showing interest and participating in their activities. This removed their fears”, said Dr Chinedu O Ebisike from Nigeria.

Many doctors had never worked outside their home countries before; gaining the respect of the local people was a priority. They were there to assist a traumatised community but they too received comfort and reassurance.

They were determined to work together with local people and were greatly rewarded. Dr Samson Aigbekaen, also from Nigeria, recalled: “In the evening we used to go fishing. They (the locals) were teaching me how to swim and I caught some fish. They took me to the reef where they were catching and picking fish. I was playing football.

“Nigeria is a football-playing nation so they were calling me some of the names of the Nigerian football players such as Okocha and Kanu. I also learned from them. I know they are good at playing cricket and handball so I tried to learn these from them.”

Excellent results

The Commonwealth is often described as a family of nations and its response to the tragic events ten years ago demonstrated how its members can work together to assist countries in need.

The contribution made by the Commonwealth Volunteers Doctors Progamme was recognised at the highest level by the Maldives government, local island chiefs and communities.

The doctors were praised for the commitment and dedication towards improving the health of the nation following the tsunami and for their efforts in assisting in the long-term rehabilitation of the health service.

The success of this programme was testimony to the Commonwealth’s dedication to improving the lives of all of its citizens.

The Commonwealth Secretariat continues to use its networks and technical expertise to provide support to governments to minimise the impact of natural disasters, and develop new strategies to improve the lives of all Commonwealth citizens. 

Lainy Malkani, is a former Communications Officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

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