(5) Environmental change makes government planning a critical success factor

It is an unequivocal finding of this research that proactively planned migration is experienced as vastly more positive than hastily executed ad hoc migration. This is exemplified by two dissimilar island migration experiences: (i): hasty and unplanned migration from Hathifushi Island to Hanimaadhoo Island following two successive flooding events; (ii): proactive government planned migration from the Islands of Faridhoo, Kunburudhoo and Maavaidhoo to the Island of Nolhivaranfaru following six years of preparation.

(i) Hasty and unplanned migration from Hathifushi Island to Hanimaadhoo Island

The example of the Island of Hathifushi which was hastily abandoned by its resident community of 295 islanders on 5 July 2007 following storm surges in June

2007 dramatically illustrates both the storm surge risk to low-lying islands, and the social and economic cost of unanticipated migration. According to one migrant from Hathifushi the island is naturally low-lying: during a regular high tide only “six inches [15 cm] of land is above the water” (Q6/Exp/Migr/Dest/Hanimaadhoo/ 20111226).

According to anecdotal accounts by Hathifushi islanders, even though the 2004 tsunami saw 90% of the island area covered (Q6/Exp/Migr/Dest/Hanimaadhoo/ 20111226) to a height of 30-50 cm with ocean water (Q24/Migr/Orig/Hathifushi/ 20111231), islanders regarded the storm surges in 2007 as the more frightening and economically ruinous disaster event since they occurred at night, lasted much longer (two days), and covered the entire island with water reaching up to a height of 1 m (Q24/Migr/Orig/Hathifushi/20111231).

“We suffered huge losses ... we had to leave all items from all houses ... We did not take anything with us ... There was no sufficient time” (Q24b/Migr/Orig/ Hathifushi/20111231).

Importantly, although the community of Hathifushi islanders appears to have re-quested relocation as early as in the 1960s, and as late as in 2004, it was not moved by the government until after the devastating storm surges triggered a swift and final evacuation.

We were having thoughts of moving to another island since 1963 or 1968. Our forefathers wanted to move but could not achieve that but we have now been able to move. Similar to many other islands of Maldives, we were experiencing erosion of the island and when the tsunami of 2004 came, water swept the whole island and flooded 90% of the island. Several Maldivians suffered from the tsunami. We faced several difficulties and we discussed very sincerely with the government to prioritise the needs of our people. But a decision had not been made before storm surges swept the island around June 2007. The whole island was flooded on a worse scale than the tsunami. The government then decided to move us . on 5 July 2007. [...] The entire population was moved to ... Hanimaadhoo. We started living in houses of Hanimaadhoo people, and we are still living in their houses [...] We don’t know about the status of the housing project. The work is being carried out on this island to build housing units. We have no idea if those housing units [that are presently under construction] are for the people who moved from Hathifushi or not. Neither the Council Office nor do we have any information about that so we can’t comment on that. (Q6/Exp/Migr/Dest/Hanimaadhoo/20111225)

At the time of this research, the majority of Hathifushi islanders continued living under the roofs of Hanimaadhoo “host families” who agreed to offer temporary accommodation to evacuees in exchange for modest government subsidised monthly rental payments of 500 Rufiyaa[1] per accommodated person per month. This impromptu “host family” arrangement was still operational at the time of this research visit to Hanimaadhoo (Q9+10/Migr+Host/Dest/Hanimaadhoo/20111227).

  • (ii) Proactive government planned migration from the Islands of Faridhoo, Kunburudhoo and Maavaidhoo to the Island of Nolhivaranfaru
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In stark contrast, the three sparsely settled Islands of Faridhoo, Kunburudhoo and Maavaidhoo were proactively abandoned in January 2011 following six years of preparation, and the three island communities collectively and quasisimultaneously resettled on the “host” Island of Nolhivaranfaru (“community of destination”) on three consecutive days in January 2011 (Haveeru Daily 2011; TPO 2011; SAMN 2011). One migrant and island administrator recounts pertinent lessons and experiences:

We made considerable efforts in collaboration with the Island Development Committee that existed at that time to facilitate the migration of people from three islands by including that in the government’s policies. [The government] was planning and implementing a housing project to move people from Faridhoo, Kunburudhoo and Maavaidhoo. If I remember correctly, 325 people from Kunburudhoo, 230 people from Faridhoo and 546 people from Maavaidhoo moved. [...] At that time the population of Nolhivaranfaru was 587. Now the total population of the four islands reached 1,757. Through this process I have realised how difficult it is to move an island population to another island and develop a community ... in the initial days after the migration, there [were] some issues that caused dissatisfaction. However, our belief is that in the future Nolhivaranfaru will be a convenient island to live ... After we migrated to Nolhivaranfaru we have received several benefits and advantages. Those include easy access to [the regional hub] Kulhudhuffushi and other islands and access to a better harbour. In all aspects we see Nolhivaranfaru as a better island to live. The problem is that the population [on many islands] is too small. There is no adequate education or health, there are no jobs available, it is so difficult to use the harbour . However, now that we have moved here . transportation will be easier [and] health too, it will be a better place. Hence, in all aspects islands with larger populations will develop faster. (Nolhivaranfaru Council officer and migrant from Faridhoo Island;


Despite the fact that migration to Nolhivaranfaru was not experienced as altogether perfect,[2] arriving migrants had nonetheless all moved into brand new government funded houses which had been specifically built and prepared for the migrant community, and which heads of families received on a chance basis when two students from Nolhivaranfaru “drew lots to determine who would get which house” (Q18a/Migr/Dest/Nolhivaranfaru/20111229) while around “500 people stood by and watched near the island’s central tree” (Q18b/Migr/Dest/ Nolhivaranfaru/20111229). This allocation method was perceived as a “fair and good process” (ibid). Moreover, the three relocating island communities which arrived successively in Nolhivaranfaru over the course of three days (one island per day) were expectantly welcomed on the beach by their new hosts who offered them an “island community welcome” (Q21/Exp/Dest/Nolhivaranfaru/20111230) which entailed “welcome drinks, food parcels, waiting ambulances for the sick” (ibid), as well as subsequent visits to the arrivals’ new houses “to see if anybody had missed out” (ibid).

For the purposes of this case study the two aforementioned migration experiences appear to highlight two very important points. First, natural disasters and environmental change—of which climate change is a part and to which it contributes—can combine with other problems to swiftly overwhelm a community’s collective coping capacity. The resultant situation may be experienced as so frightful and exasperating as to trigger unplanned ad hoc migration responses, which are lacking in critical preparation, coordination, and funding (i.e. Hathifushi). Second, policy maker foresight and anticipatory preparedness can promote proactive migration in such a way that critical preparations can enable a more benign migration experience where the element of force is more muted. The important point is that critical preparations are made before these are needed (i.e. Nolhivaranfaru).

While a number of factors had long prompted the Hathifushi island community to seek government sponsored relocation (the causes), it was the storm surges (the triggers) that finally compounded the vulnerabilities and became the tipping element that pushed the whole community “over the edge”, resulting in their rapid ad hoc migration response (Q32/Exp/EOS-NTU, Singapore/20120106). Therefore, progressive climate change and creeping environmental change appear to make proactive migration planning an increasingly important priority for policy makers to focus on.

A further lesson that has emerged from this study is that long-term migration planning needs to be unencumbered by electoral cycles and/or partisan politics. Incidentally, less than 5 weeks after the end of this fieldwork the government in Maldives changed again (Aljazeera 2012; BBC 2012a, b and c), triggering the dissolution and reconfiguration of the Ministry of Housing and Environment, along with a raft of other changes. In the absence of long-term strategic migration planning, ad hoc migrants can easily fall through the cracks of day-to-day policy maker business, or even become pawns in the hands of politicians (Q24b/Migr/ Orig/Hathifushi/20111231; Q9+10/Migr+Host/Dest/Hanimaadhoo/20111227).

  • [1] Equivalent in value to approximately US$ 32 (i.e. on the day the interview took place).
  • [2] Some migrant respondents from Maavaidhoo and Kunburudhoo regretted that the governmenthad not made good on its promise to compensate them for fruit-bearing trees that they hadabandoned in their islands of origin (Q17/Q18/Q19/Migr/Dest/Nolhivaranfaru/20111229).Moreover, with the in-migrating islanders all receiving brand new government funded houses therewas a shared sentiment among parts of the host community that the original “Nolivaranfaruislanders were missing out” (Q15+16/Exp/Nolhivaranfaru/20111229).
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