MALE, Maldives – The tsunamis that swept across the Indian Ocean did more than take a heavy toll of lives and property in the Maldives (search) — they confronted the tiny island nation with a threat to its survival.
The archipelago of 1,190 low-lying coral islands, dotted across hundreds of miles of ocean, has for years begged bigger, more powerful nations for action against global warming, fearing higher sea levels could literally make much of its territory disappear.
The speeding walls of water that slammed into 11 nations in Asia and Africa on Sunday, killing tens of thousands of people, marked a brutal demonstration of vulnerability.
"We are the world's lowest-lying country," said Mohammed Zahir, one of the country's leading environmentalists. "The average height of our islands is 1 meter (3 feet)."
At a schoolyard converted into a disaster area on the main island of Male, sobbing people waited Tuesday for news of relatives from outlying islands. At least 52 people were confirmed dead, among them two British tourists, and 66 were listed as missing.
Ahmed Shaheed, the chief government spokesman, expected the figures to rise after authorities make contact with distant atolls. Although the number of casualties is small compared to huge tallies in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, they are comparable in proportion to Maldives' tiny population of 280,000.
"Our nation is in peril here," Shaheed said. "Life as we know it in this country is in some parts gone. Thailand, Sri Lanka, India — these are big countries with a lot of land area. They can bounce back from disasters like this. For us, it's not so easy."
Parliamentary elections scheduled for Friday may have to be postponed, although the government has made no announcement yet.
Shaheed estimated the economic cost of the disaster at hundreds of millions of dollars. The Maldives's annual gross domestic product is $660 million.
"It won't be surprising if the cost exceeds our GDP," Shaheed said. "In the last few years, we made great progress in our standard of living — the United Nations recognized this. Now we see this can disappear in a few days, a few minutes."
Shaheed noted that investment in a single tourist resort — the economic mainstay — could run to $40 million. Between 10 and 12 of the 80-odd resorts have been severely damaged, and a similar number have suffered significant damage.
Waves 3 feet or more high swept completely across many islands. They extended over as much as half of Male, a relatively large island of 0.7 square miles pouring down the narrow, sandy streets and dashing against buildings including the president's office.
Kandolhudhoo, an island of 3,500 people in the northern atoll of Raa, was "uninhabitable" after being completely covered by water, Assistant Island Chief Mohammed Ali Fulhu told the Haveeru newspaper.
Residents were evacuated. Rather than trying to rebuild their island, the people would probably have to start new lives elsewhere, Fulhu said.
Relief efforts are focusing on contacting outlying atolls and providing basic supplies to thousands of people who lack drinking water, food and electric power.
Ten thousand people have been evacuated to other islands, where authorities are working to prevent outbreaks of disease.
Shaheed said the Maldives was receiving disaster relief from around the world and assistance from two Pakistan navy ships and their helicopters, which were making a port call when the tsunamis struck.
As the Maldives seeks reconstruction aid from the international community, it's likely to step up pleas for action on global warming.
Although there was no direct link between climate change and the tsunami, which was caused by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the world's largest in 40 years, many Maldivians say irregular weather patterns and erosion by the sea are making the country more vulnerable.
Shaheed said the Maldives would raise the issue at a previously scheduled international conference on the sustainable development of small island nations in Mauritius next month.
The country will also continue building physical defenses against the sea. Breakwaters built around Male after monsoon flooding in 1987 may have reduced the impact of this week's tsunami.
Another result of the tsunami may be an acceleration of the government's efforts to move some of the population to less exposed islands. A big land reclamation project under way on an island near Male could eventually settle 50,000 people, nearly a fifth of the population.
"After what happened, people may realize they stand a better chance of surviving disasters like this if they move, and become more willing to move," Shaheed said.
But such a mass population movement would deal a blow to the traditional lifestyles of the Maldives's fishing villages, which the government has been keen to protect. And it could mean abandoning a growing number of small, habitable islands to eventual destruction by the sea.