Photo: Mercy Corps
The flooding which occurred at the end of June 2022 on the south coast damaged 1,361 homes in Lautem, Viqueque, Manufahi, Manatuto, Ainaro and Cova Lima Municipalities. Of course, this is not the first time Timor-Leste has experienced such flooding – it has happened many times in the past in both rural areas and in the capital city. The most notable example from recent times was the April 2021 flooding which destroyed many homes in Dili, Hera and elsewhere, displacing thousands and killing over 40 people.
In 2013, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) published analysis on current and future threats from the perspective of environmental security. The case of Timor-Leste provides a clear example of how environmental security poses a challenge to national development. In 2009, President José Ramos Horta gave a presentation at the United Nations in New York related to climate change, in which he argued that poverty is the primary cause of environmental degradation in Timor-Leste and is the main contributor to vulnerability to climate change.
FM agrees that poverty is a major factor which contributes to vulnerability to climate change and to environmental degradation. This is an extremely complex problem, and occurs in Timor-Leste due to various factors, including exploitation of resources during the Portuguese and Indonesian periods, mass dislocation which heavily impacted traditional land and water management systems, and a lack of investment by the Timor-Leste state in irrigation, drainage and other physical infrastructure. At the same time, FM sees that today’s environmental problems are directly related to questions of socio-economic development, especially people’s economic conditions which are inadequate and not modernized, lack of infrastructure and management, and minimal education levels.
On the part of communities, there are of course numerous practices which threaten environmental security, such as chopping down and burning trees, throwing rubbish and doing construction haphazardly, and allowing animals to roam freely. However, the reality is that most people do these actions because their situation forces them, or as a result of inadequate management or education provided by the state.
A concrete example is waste management in urban areas. In Dili, drains and rivers are full of plastic and other rubbish, which blocks water flow and creates a risk of floods. This happens because many community members throw waste without thinking of the impact to drainage and flooding. However, it is also the case that rubbish collection facilities and systems are inadequate. Rubbish collection points are poorly controlled, with waste often spilling out into the street, while children and animals can easily enter. FM worries that this poor management and inadequate government attention contributes to a lack of care or respect among communities towards the rubbish collection system, as they can see that it does not function properly.
The men who work collecting rubbish also face risks every day because they are not provided with adequate personal protective equipment, and there is no system to separate dangerous items such as medical waste, broken glass and sharp metal objects. Another contributing factor is low levels of education among many community members regarding the importance of waste management, while the Government has not implemented sufficient public awareness campaigns to teach people about how waste management impacts community safety and wellbeing, especially related to protecting against natural disasters and various diseases. As a result, many people do not understand the importance of drainage and waste management for environmental security, which contributes to the mentality of many community members who throw rubbish irresponsibly.
However, another major issue which contributes to the flooding risk is that most construction works in Timor-Leste are not done according to rules or standards, and there is a lack of control related to quality of houses and drainage. This increases vulnerability to flooding, landslides and pollution, which affects not only individual households but entire communities. Furthermore, this problem is not the result of people disregarding rules – in reality, the state has not implemented any rules related to the construction of hoses.
The consequence of this many people build houses in places at risk from erosion and flooding such as riversides and near the sea. In Dili, we see that many people have bought land and built houses on steep hillsides. When heavy rains come, Dili is often more badly affected because of the concentration of poorly built homes. When we compare with other countries, we can see that many have good urban management, with adequate channels for disposal of dirty water and other waste.
So far, there are no clear plans or rules for urban management which can serve as a guideline for construction or infrastructure in Dili to prevent flooding, diseases or other natural disasters. In 2020, the Ministry of Public Works began the process of creating a Law on Regulations of Civil and Housing Construction, but since then there has been no new information on this process. FM sees that such a Law is essential to protect people’s lives, especially if natural disasters are likely to increase in the future, so we urge the Government to accelerate this process.
To minimize the community impacts from natural disasters, it is necessary to create rules which ensure that communities build homes away from riversides seafronts and steep slopes, and that houses must be built according to a minimum standard. However, it is important to recognize that many people build houses which are vulnerable to natural disasters because their economic situation gives them no other option. Therefore, the state must create a mechanism for people receive assistance in order to guarantee that houses are built according to minimum standards.
Civil society organisations have asked the state many times to create a public housing program to provide free, good quality housing to communities. The Uma Kbi’it La’ek (Poor People’s Housing) program has helped some people in need, but it is not adequate to resolve the problem of sub-standard housing and risks of natural disasters. Therefore, FM suggests that the Government create a program which can identify people who have already built homes and those who are currently building them, where the houses are vulnerable to natural disasters, and then provide them with support to improve the quality of the houses so that they can withstand strong winds or flooding.
In addition to implementing construction regulations, the Government must take urgent action to fix drainage and waterways in Dili and other urban areas, which includes addressing waste management which is a constant problem for drainage. FM is pleased to hear that the US Government has signed an agreement with Timor-Leste through the Millennium Challenge Corporation to support fixing water supply, sanitation and drainage in Dili. We hope that this project will be implemented quickly, which can strengthen environmental security, public health and the wellbeing of all our people.
Regarding the recent flooding on the south coast, 1,361 households in Lautem, Viqueque, Manufahi, Manatutu, Ainaro and Cova Lima Municipalities were damanaged, so FM asks the Government to provide assistance to community members to replace essential goods which have been destroyed and to help pay for reconstruction of houses. FM also asks the Ministry of State Administration to implement the plan to construct 5,000 homes for flood victims in new areas identified in Hera and Tibar.
Finally, FM recommends to the Government improve urban management and physical infrastructure in the capital city and urban areas in other municipalities. During the 20 years since Timor-Leste’s independence, construction is still largely unregulated, while waste management and water and sanitation systems do not function effectively. These issues pose a major threat to people’s lives and wellbeing, including by making people more vulnerable to natural disasters and disease. It is not only dengue and diarrhea which are caused by stagnant and dirty water, but many children are injured – and some even die – due to playing near to rubbish, old metal and animals.
With this article, FM urges the Government to approve and implement the law regulating construction of houses, create a serious plan to fix drainage systems in Dili and other areas, and create a plan for waste management to prevent rubbish entering drainage systems and creating flood and disease risks. FM also recommends that the Ministry of Health should work together with the Ministry of Public Works to resolve this situation, as waste management and drainage are also public health issues, and the state must develop an integrated plan to respond to these complex problems.