UNEP post-tsunami assessment finds environmental impacts in Maldives

IHA/1055, UNEP/293

(Reissued as received.)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, 17 June (UNEP) - A report issued by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today found that the Indian Ocean tsunami caused a number of significant impacts on the Maldives environment.

Although Maldives' world-famous resorts are in good condition and largely open for business, the country's inhabited islands are confronting several environmental challenges that have resulted from the December 2004 tsunami.

The UNEP report concluded that the tsunami generated approximately 290,000 cubic metres of waste on the country's 69 inhabited islands that were severely damaged by the tsunami. Asbestos from crushed roofing material was mixed into the debris.

Coastal zones were eroded and vegetation, including food crops, was destroyed. In many cases, the tsunami worsened pre-existing environmental management problems on the inhabited islands.

Groundwater supplies were contaminated by seawater and sewage from disrupted septic systems. Water samples taken by the team found levels of biological contamination of groundwater too high to measure.

On a number of islands, UNEP also found high levels of nitrates in the groundwater, which pose serious health threats to infants and young children, if ingested. Although groundwater is not normally used for drinking water supplies, contamination of the groundwater supply came at a time when rainwater collection systems were damaged and before the rainy season, when freshwater was in short supply on several islands.

The UNEP assessment found that the tsunami's impacts were greatest where villages or cultivated fields abutted the sea with little or no coastal protection. By contrast, where natural coastal forests and vegetation that had been left untouched, UNEP found a reduction in soil erosion and building destruction.

UNEP's report cited an earlier assessment by an Australian Government team that found that the country's coral reefs had experienced only minor impacts from the tsunami. The report noted that additional environmental safeguards are in place for the country's resort islands, which are crucial to the Maldives economy.

Abdullahi Majeed, Deputy Minister in the Maldives Ministry of Environment and Construction, said: "The tsunami has brought home most traumatically our dependence on the environment. I earnestly hope that this major disaster is not a precursor of what is to follow in Maldives with the projected rise in ocean levels. We are working closely with international partners to ensure that reconstruction is conducted in an environmentally sound manner."

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said: "The tsunami in the Indian Ocean taught the world some hard, shocking but important lessons which we ignore at our peril. We learnt in graphic and horrific detail that the ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses which we have so casually destroyed are not a luxury. They are life savers capable of defending our homes, our loved ones and our livelihoods from some of nature's more aggressive acts."

"They are also instrumental, in less devastating times, of supplying communities with goods and services that underlie prosperity and help humankind overcome poverty", Mr. Toepfer added. "So they have an important role in assisting us in realizing the Millennium Development Goals and delivering a more stable, healthy and prosperous world. It is, therefore, vital, that during the reconstruction of shattered coastlines and settlements, the environment is taken into account along with the economic and social factors. This would be among the lasting tributes, and a key mark of respect, that we pay to people and the families who fell victim to the events of December 2004. Be assured that UNEP stands ready to offer help now and in the future to those countries concerned."

The UNEP report is based on the findings of a team of international and national experts who visited 16 islands on eight atolls. The report contains a number of recommendations for the Government and international partners.

These include a strong call for environmental planning during reconstruction, strengthening of the Ministry of Environment and Construction, and moving towards the creation of a "green state" in Maldives, in which sound environmental management practices would benefit local communities while helping to market Maldives tourism. Detailed recommendations were also offered regarding waste management, sanitation, groundwater remediation, coastal zone protection and other issues.

Pasi Rinne, Chairman of the UNEP Asian Tsunami Disaster Task Force, said: "Additional international assistance is needed to support the environmental recovery effort in Maldives. The country has made great economic strides in the past years. We cannot allow this progress to be jeopardized, and we must do all that we can to help protect Maldives from future disaster risks. UNEP's assessment shows that the environment plays a vital role in this process."

The report was developed in close cooperation with the Ministry of Environment and Construction of Maldives (MEC). With support recently received from the United Kingdom's Department for International Development and the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), UNEP is commencing projects to train workers in the handling and disposal of hazardous waste, to advise the MEC on the clean up of tsunami waste, and to promote the integration of environmental reviews, coastal planning and sustainability concepts into reconstruction plans.

For further information, please contact: Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Office of the Executive Director, tel: +254-20-62-3084, mobile: +254-733-63-2755, e-mail:, or in New York, contact Jim Sniffen, Information Officer, at tel: +1-212-963-8094/8210, e-mail: