From Steve Schwager, CEO
The Maldives is a small Muslim island nation in the Indian Ocean spread over 1,192 islets—only 200 of them inhabited—with a widely scattered population of some 300,000 people. The islands are actually the tops of a vast undersea submarine mountain range. Maldives is the smallest Asian country in both population and land mass. But its most remarkable distinction is that it is the lowest country on earth, rising to a mere 2.3 meters above sea level at its highest point. That’s just 7 feet, 7 inches!
That makes the Maldives especially vulnerable to natural disasters, particularly where water is involved. The archipelago’s government ministers dramatically demonstrated that fact a year or so ago: they donned scuba gear and held a cabinet meeting underwater, highlighting the threat their island country faces from rising sea levels associated with global warming.
So you can well imagine that heavy rains, storms, and typhoons are all taken very seriously in the Maldives. And so are tsunamis.
Compared to countries that bore the brunt of the 2004 tsunami, the Maldives was fortunate. Partly sheltered from the vast wave, “only” about 100 Maldivians are believed to have died that December 26 (2004)—a tragedy that would have made global headlines were it not for the massive loss of life in nearby countries.
Indeed, given the scale of the suffering caused by the tsunami six years ago, JDC’s own relief programs focused first on the countries hardest hit—Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, and Thailand—where an estimated 225,000 people lost their lives and another 1.5 to 2 million were displaced.
JDC’s tsunami relief efforts have made a lasting difference in the affected countries. Over these six years, we have supported more than 150 projects, dealing with both immediate relief—food, water, blankets, etc.—and the long-term reconstruction of communities, individual dignity, and quality of life.
JDC projects have included:
Indonesia: Providing psychosocial support, creating child friendly spaces, and establishing a fishing cooperative as well as other income generating activities.
Sri Lanka: Working with USAID and the Bush-Clinton Fund to construct 85 playgrounds throughout the coastal plain; and partnering with local organizations to provide skills training and empowerment activities, establishing five multi-purpose community centers along the southern coast, and creating a management center that has developed a regional network in the field of disaster preparedness.
India: Helping reestablish livelihoods by implementing cash-for-work programs in 10 villages, in addition to emergency shelter, medicine, and food relief programs.
Thailand: Collaborating with a local partner on a full range of psychosocial and community development projects, including a series of workshops for teachers to learn how to provide psychological support to their students and trauma relief seminars led by Israeli experts; establishing a number of school-based computer centers; supporting vocational retraining programs; conducting school lunch programs; and building playgrounds and toilets.
But the unique situation of the Maldives also demanded our attention. So JDC began to support several post-tsunami relief initiatives there starting in 2008.
Working with the Care Society Maldives and the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, an Indian-based NGO, JDC supported a school safety program in 2009. The program, which mapped the safety of schools in the Maldives to withstand manmade and natural disasters and implemented improvements in the level of disaster preparedness in vulnerable schools, also provided a “training the trainers” aspect related to school safety.
In 2010, through Magen David Adom (MDA), JDC equipped a floating ambulance for use in the southern Maldives and trained local medical teams in the use of the equipment. Viewed as a critical addition to the country’s emergency response medical fleet, the floating ambulance is being used to respond to the medical needs of citizens living on the country’s 200 populated islands.
A Workshop on Disaster Preparedness and Inter-Organizational Coordination was implemented by Mashav and MDA in 2010, in cooperation with the Maldives National Disaster Management Centre. Three Israeli experts trained some 40 participants from the Maldives’ public sector during the weeklong workshop.
Just a few weeks ago, with support from JDC, a mission of eight Israeli ophthalmologic volunteer medical professionals from Eye from Zion spent 10 days in the Maldives as invited guests of the island-nation’s government. The mission was coordinated and closely chaperoned by Government Undersecretary Abdulla Shahid, Coordinator of the Maldives National Disaster Management Centre.
JDC’s partnership with Eye from Zion—an Israeli-Jewish NGO that provides free ophthalmologic treatments and surgeries that are often unavailable locally in developing countries—dates back almost to the organization’s founding in 2007.
The Israeli doctors who were part of the Maldives mission worked with local health authorities and local physicians to provide medical support to the vision impaired. They held “eye surgery camps” in the capital Male and in the Southern Island region. Using their own mobile sterile operating facility brought from Israel, the doctors successfully performed some 40 surgeries and gave consultations and other treatments to an additional 400 Maldivians.
The Israeli team also left behind a stronger Maldivian capacity to render similar treatment. They provided training for local medical and paramedical personnel and left the mobile operating facility to the local authorities when they departed.
President Mohamed Nasheed met with and thanked the Israeli team on behalf of the “vast majority of Maldivians” for their humanitarian work. And during the mission, Minister Shahid called Judy Amit, Global Director of JDC’s International Development Program, to extend his profuse gratitude for JDC’s support of this worthy project.
As we have mentioned many times, JDC’s non-sectarian initiatives aim to foster greater goodwill and to employ the knowledge and experience of Israeli experts, Israeli governmental and non-governmental organizations, and JDC technical assistance wherever it can be valuable.
And that’s exactly what has happened in the Maldives. Asia’s smallest country it may be. But Irv and I believe that our IDP involvement there has had an enormous impact—one that will be felt there, and throughout the tsunami region, for many years to come.