Early on the morning of Easter Sunday, 4 April 2021, flash floods caused by Tropical Cyclone Seroja devastated parts of the capital city of Dili, as well as impacting numerous rural areas. Many homes were damaged or destroyed, displacing thousands of people and killing dozens. Many roads – including several main roads linking Dili with the districts – have been damaged, along with other critical infrastructure, vehicles, agricultural products and livestock. After a torrential downpour lasting around 14 hours, the rain stopped on Sunday afternoon, allowing the floodwaters to recede and clean-up efforts to begin. Thousands of displaced people sought shelter with their few remaining belongings in government buildings, schools, NGO offices and other public spaces, where more than 15,000 people in Dili alone remain until now. Major efforts are underway to provide relief to the flood victims, including online fundraising, solidarity kitchens and deliveries of food and clothing, but demand exceeds supply and many people are going hungry each day.
The emergency response has so far been driven mainly by non-governmental actors, including private citizens, companies, civil society organisations and international agencies. These groups have mobilised local and international solidarity networks to collect and deliver assistance to those most in need. Numerous state officials have visited disaster sites and made public statements of solidarity with the victims, and on the evening of 8th April the Government declared a state of disaster (situação de calamidade) and called for international assistance. Also, there are reports that F-FDTL is being mobilised to assist with cleaning up and delivering aid, but this has not been officially confirmed yet. Fundasaun Mahein is glad that the Government has declared a state of disaster and requested international assistance. However, we believe that the slow governmental response – as well as the devastating impact of the floods themselves – are indicative of long-term structural weaknesses afflicting Timor-Leste.
First, due to the constant political difficulties and problems between elites and within the public administration, the state has been slow to develop its capacity to improve infrastructure and create the necessary conditions to meet our people’s basic needs. Successive governments have failed to invest adequately in public housing, water supply and drainage systems, and limited economic development and job opportunities, which has forced many of our people to live in crowded, precarious conditions, leaving them extremely vulnerable to floods and other social harms. There have been plans to fix the drainage systems in Dili included in the State Budget for several years, which was to be funded with a loan from China’s EXIM Bank. However, this loan agreement was rejected by Timor-Leste’s Audit Court, and, as a result, the project was never carried out. Last year’s flooding in Dili was a sign that the drainage system was in urgent need of reconstruction, but the Government failed to heed this warning, with disastrous results. Another issue limiting the state’s response is that the training of Timor-Leste’s security forces has been oriented primarily towards policing and military preparedness, with insufficient attention given to the civil protection component of our national security system. The Civil Protection Authority itself, which is supposed to coordinate emergency responses, has not received adequate funding or training to develop its capacities to be able to carry out its functions.
The quick and effective response of the private groups responding to the urgent needs of the flood victims – which Fundasaun Mahein fully supports – unfortunately exposes further the state’s lack of capacity to respond to emergencies and meet our people’s basic needs. This latest disaster also comes on top of long-term problems affecting Timor-Leste, including delays with the State Budget, long-running political deadlock, inadequate public services, few economic opportunities and the increased socio-economic hardship resulting from Covid-19 restrictions. Ongoing restrictions on movement and flood-damage to roads and agriculture mean that a food crisis is soon likely to affect rural areas unless urgent action is taken now. As a result of these interlocking crises, social tensions and dissatisfaction with the Government are widespread and rising, which present profound risks for national stability and security in the near future. In addition, climate change and ongoing socio-economic and infrastructural vulnerabilities mean that extreme weather events will most likely continue to pose a major threat to our people’s security and wellbeing into the future.
In order to address these threats and challenges, unity and urgent action from Timor-Leste’s leaders is needed. Fundasaun Mahein would like to remind katuas sira that the lack of unity between leaders during the resistance time led to many problems, and sadly many destructive actions by leaders have continued throughout independence until today. These acts have led to much suffering and injustice, including the 2006 crisis, problems with state projects, corruption, nepotism and deep socio-economic inequalities. As our leaders know, the title of the Chega! report is a clarion call demanding that the violence, crimes and injustices of the past must never be repeated again. We therefore urge our leaders to use this latest disaster as an opportunity to work together to quickly develop a comprehensive plan for responding to this crisis, as well as for addressing other structural problems facing Timor-Leste.
To assist decision makers with their crisis response plan and ensure that people’s suffering and needs are addressed, Fundasaun Mahein offers the following suggestions:
- In addition to coordinating with international relief efforts, state decision makers including the Government, President, National Parliament and political parties must work together to pass an emergency budget for disaster relief. This should include provisioning for food, clothing, cleaning, house reconstruction and drainage system rehabilitation.
- Now and over the long-term, priority must be given to providing the Civil Protection Authority with adequate support to coordinate emergency responses. All infrastructure and economic development plans should incorporate a civil protection component to ensure resilience.
- The security forces should be immediately mobilised to assist with providing aid to flood victims, including delivering food, clothes and assisting with clean-up and reconstruction. Future training of the security forces should focus on developing their capacities to respond to natural disasters, in accordance with the principles of ‘complementarity’ and ‘subsidiarity’ in our national security system.
- The Government should create comprehensive plans for ensuring that housing, drainage, sanitation and water systems are adapted to resist natural disasters. Equitable socio-economic development and investment in public infrastructure, basic services and social safety nets will create the conditions for our population to be resilient to all kinds of threats.
- Displaced people who can stay with their families in rural areas should immediately be evacuated with support from the Government. F-FDTL can coordinate this and commandeer state vehicles to transport people. Thousands of people including many children are sleeping on concrete floors with inadequate food, clothing or toilet facilities, and it is inhumane to keep them there when many could easily be evacuated.
- To enable the flow of people, money and goods, serca sanitária rules must be relaxed for those urgently needing to return to rural areas or deliver assistance. People are already suffering extreme hardship in many areas due to these rules, people have reportedly committed suicide due to food insecurity and inability to move, and a food crisis may occur soon without immediate action.
- Rural areas affected by flooding must be immediately assessed for food necessities, and the Government must ensure necessary support for feeding the population – including food aid, clean-up and agricultural equipment – over the coming weeks.
- ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a statement on 7th April in solidarity with the people of Timor-Leste and Indonesia, and expressed interest in extending their support to both countries. This is an opportunity for Timor-Leste’s Government to seek assistance from ASEAN member states, which have already created a centre for disaster management, ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre (AHA). This can help to provide immediate relief to our people while strengthening Timor-Leste’s links with ASEAN.