Just like the corals and exotic fish in its sparkling blue waters, you may not see them at first - but look a little below the surface, and the suffering and loss inflicted on the Maldives on December 26 become strikingly clear. Its apparent death toll of at least 100, including three foreign tourists, was one of the lowest in any of the affected areas. Three times as many people died in far-flung Somalia and more than 2,000 times as many perished in Indonesia. Tourists flying by seaplane to the exclusive resorts, spread like precious jewels across more than 900km of equatorial ocean, see no trace of destruction - resorts are built only on otherwise deserted islands, and only those undamaged or repaired are open. But according to an expert assessment, the Muslim republic of 290,000 people - a collection of 1,190 tiny islands with an average altitude of 1.5 metres above sea level - was the most devastated of all affected countries in terms of economic impact and scope. Nearly one in three people on the Maldives was severely affected by the tsunami, and total damage is estimated at US$470 million - 62 per cent of the country's annual gross domestic product - partly because of the nation's massive reliance on tourism. Small, isolated populations with rudimentary infrastructure scattered across a country that is more than 99 per cent ocean are struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what happened. On the inhabited islands, one-third of which have populations of fewer than 500, 12 per cent of people lost their homes and 7 per cent of people were still living in temporary housing two months after the disaster. Fishing communities have been bankrupted because of the slump in tourism, and the seas have become treacherous because of huge logs carried by the currents from Indonesia. Boats can no longer sail safely after sunset. While for other countries the tsunami was a catastrophe limited to coastal areas, for the Maldives it was a truly national disaster, according to a joint report by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations. It was also a chilling harbinger of what could happen if global warming accelerates and rising sea levels continue to affect the islands, some of the lowest lying in the world. Erskine Bowles, United Nations Deputy Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, said the tsunami had had a greater economic impact on the Maldives than 'anywhere else in the world'. After visiting some of the devastated fishing communities, he said: 'People have to understand that while the amount of the loss in the Maldives and number of lives lost were less, if you look at it on a per capita basis we had more damage here than any other country.' Patrice Coeur-Bizot, UN resident co-ordinator for the Maldives, said the disaster had set the nation back by years in terms of economic development. The tsunami struck just as the Maldives was due to be elevated from the UN's list of the world's least-developed countries to a medium-income economy, ranking alongside Asian nations such as Thailand and the Philippines. The tsunami derailed that process, which would have opened up a new world of international credit and economic opportunity. The UN has now granted the Maldives a three-year grace period to repair the damage to its infrastructure and social systems. 'I don't want to play down the impact on the other countries but as far as the Maldives is concerned, this is a total tragedy,' Mr Coeur-Bizot said. Australian volunteer teacher Toni Moran, 39, has been working since February on Kolhufushi, where the entire population of 1,200 lost their homes and 15 people are dead or missing. 'These people have lost everything,' said Mrs Moran. 'Most Maldivians keep their money in their house, and their life savings were washed out to sea. 'The children have lost all their toys and belongings. The girls have no dolls to play with. 'When a seaplane comes in, they are scared because it is similar to the sound of the tsunami. 'We had a big storm last week and it frightened a lot of people. They don't like to go to the seafront any more. They feel it is all too much. They look at the sea with a sense of hopelessness.' The UN has launched a scheme called 'Adopt an Island' to try to attract corporate donors to sponsor 22 of the worst-affected Maldivian islands, with repair bills ranging from US$74,000 for Rinbudhoo to US$4.56 million for Vilufushi. In a reflection of the difficulty the Maldives has in getting its plight recognised internationally, there had been no confirmed adoptions by the end of February, although the Rhone-Alpes region of southeast France, DHL Singapore and Swedish furniture maker Ikea were in talks with the UN over the project. There is still a shortfall of around US$235 million in the amount of aid needed to rebuild the country, according to Mr Couer-Bizot, who is keen to maintain the fund-raising momentum before the attention of the world begins to waver. 'The tsunami has been a tragedy, but at the same time we must be positive and take on board what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said - that we should aim for 'recovery plus',' he said. 'We are not going to build new houses using the same material and we are not going to build in the same way. We are going to improve living conditions for them and improve their future. 'I don't want the Maldives to be forgotten. We keep our fingers crossed and hope the Maldives will be still on the radar screen of the general population.'