Noise pollution in the capital city harms quality of life, public order and economic development

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For most residents of Dili, it is now common to hear loud music, revving engines and shouting in public areas and residential streets at all different times, including early morning, late at night and in the middle of the week. According to environmental protection concepts which are applied worldwide, there are various forms of pollution, including air, water, earth and noise pollution. Unfortunately, the level of noise pollution in Timor-Leste has increased in recent years as certain technologies have become more accessible, but public authorities seem to be either indifferent or unable to respond to the problem. The lack of public and state response to the issue of excessive noise in the city seems to suggest that few Timorese people consider noise pollution to be a serious problem. However, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) is concerned that the lack of concern from the state or communities about controlling excessive noise is contributing to an overall atmosphere of disorder and chaos in the capital city. Noise pollution creates serious direct harms, as it disrupts people’s sleep, increases stress, harms the health of mothers and children, harms concentration and productivity, and provokes conflict within families and communities. In general, poor environmental management and implementation of basic rules in the capital city – including noise control – harms economic development, reduces quality of life and threatens public order. Therefore, we have produced this short article to suggest ways to address this issue, which we believe will increase the quality of life for all people residing in the capital city, while promoting the peaceful development of the city and the country as a whole.

FM observes that there are various reasons why noise pollution has become such a serious issue in Timor-Leste’s capital city. The main structural factors underlying this problem – and indeed most other problems – include the lack of education, employment, facilities, entertainment and environmental management. The normalization of excessive noise is also a symptom of the breakdown of traditional community systems, which is linked to Timor-Leste’s ongoing transition from a rural, traditional society to a modern, urban one. Of course, Timor-Leste faces many serious socio-economic problems which harm people’s wellbeing, most importantly lack of access to clean water, sanitation, adequate nutrition and livelihoods, and basic healthcare and education. As a result, many people may believe that noise pollution is a less serious problem. Indeed, many people may not be aware of the concept of “noise pollution” as understood in developed countries.

Another factor is that certain technologies which are major sources of excessive noise – especially electronic speakers and vehicle exhaust modification – have become cheaper and more widely available. Some businesses and informal workers play loud music for marketing purposes, such as electronics shops in Colmera, and tiga roda sellers who use portable speakers to announce their presence in communities and attract customers. There is also a widespread habit among young men to rev their motorcycles as a way of gaining attention or while participating in group celebrations, such as during football matches.

The lack of implementation of existing rules by state authorities, especially rules related to illegal modification of vehicles, is also contributing to noise pollution in the capital. PNTL has occasionally conducted operations to confiscate motorcycles with modified exhaust pipes, but these vehicles are now extremely common. FM also observes that some PNTL members drive vehicles with such illegal modifications, indicating a how even state security officials disregard the law. Of course, if the police regularly violate these rules, it is not surprising that Timorese youth who lack education, jobs and entertainment also ignore them.

The tolerance for noise within Timorese society probably stems from the general life conditions of most Timorese who grow up in crowded, noisy homes. This tolerance can be seen at events and parties, where music is often turned up to maximum volume. Such behaviour may also be linked with the lia practices which pressure people to spend large amounts to organise extravagant ceremonies and parties. On the other hand, people are increasingly critical of these habits, as discussions within communities and on social media show that many people are concerned about excessive noisiness in Dili and elsewhere. According to some comments, many people feel that the level of noise in the city has become intolerable and is damaging quality of life. However, until now there has been no coordinated action taken by the public or the state.

Noise is a normal part of city life, and businesses and private gatherings have the right to play music for economic reasons and for enjoyment. However, it is widely known that excessive noise has many negative social and economic impacts. This is why the concept of noise pollution exists, and countries have strict laws regulating noise. Noise complaints are also one of the most common reasons people call the police. Article 215 of Timor-Leste’s Penal Code mentions noise control in relation to crimes against the environment, but only refers to the impacts of noise on “natural systems”. Law No. 3/2012 Legislative Authorization on Environmental Matters recommends to “Establish the necessity of control of noise pollution and vibration, especially in residential areas”. However, to FM’s knowledge, no specific noise pollution Law or policy has been created based on this recommendation by Parliament.

Although Timor-Leste suffers from many social problems, noise pollution is a serious concern. One major impact of noise pollution is that it harms people’s physical and psychological health by depriving people of adequate sleep and increasing stress. This is especially harmful for mothers, children and babies, who need sufficient sleep to feed and develop properly. Children whose sleep is interrupted by loud noise at night will also suffer negative effects in their education. Noise pollution within communities also contributes to family and community conflicts by increasing stress, arguments and fights.

There are economic impacts from excessive noise, as people’s productivity and concentration are negatively affected when they lack sleep and suffer from increased stress. The constant excessive noise also contributes to an overall environment of poor management, uncleanliness and general disorder in the capital city. This poor environment not only harms Timorese citizens, but also makes Dili unattractive to visitors and investors. Private investors can also see the lack of interest from either communities or public authorities to improve the environment as a barrier to business development. This is especially true in the tourism, catering, entertainment, hospitality and other service industries which require orderly, clean and peaceful environments to attract customers. Without serious action to combat noise and other forms of pollution, it will be difficult to develop Timor-Leste’s tourism industry or other sectors, which are necessary for stimulating economic growth and improving our people’s quality of life.

Finally, the failure of state authorities to address the problem of noise pollution also has political implications. In particular, PNTL’s failure to implement existing regulations controlling vehicle modification undermines the rule of law, which contributes to a general lack of respect for rules and regulations across society. Thus, although some leaders probably believe that noise is a minor issue compared to other serious social problems in Timor-Leste, FM feels that it is a serious issue which must be addressed directly. Otherwise, mothers, children and workers will continue to suffer from stress and lack of sleep, Dili’s poor image will continue to pose barriers to investment and growth, and community conflict and public disorder will continue to grow, all of which threaten national stability and security.

To address the serious and growing problem of noise pollution in the capital city, Fundasaun Mahein recommends the following actions:

  • While existing laws mention the need to control noise pollution for environmental reasons, there is no specific law or policy aimed at protecting communities from noise pollution. Therefore, the Government – in collaboration with Parliament, if necessary – to create a Law aimed specifically at regulating noise in urban areas for social and economic reasons. This should then be followed by a policy and strategy to combat noise pollution using a combination of policing and civic education. In some countries, noise pollution is treated as a criminal offence under law, whereas in others it is mainly an environmental health issue regulated by municipal authorities. In FM’s opinion, it is better to avoid criminalising young people for minor offences, especially given the bad example already set by authorities and society. However, unless there are serious consequences, many people may simply ignore the rules. Therefore, the law should balance between avoiding harsh punishments, while ensuring compliance through adequate penalties.
  • PNTL must implement existing laws regulating vehicle modification. Authorities should issue warnings and steep fines to shops which provide illegal exhaust modification designed to increase engine noise volume. PNTL should also announce a grace period of one or two months for all vehicle owners to remove noise-enhancing modifications from their vehicles, after which PNTL will begin confiscating all vehicles with such modifications by patrolling public areas. PNTL could also establish a hotline to facilitate members of the public to report illegal vehicle modification and excessive revving.
  • PNTL along with municipal authorities should issue notices to all businesses and communities that music speakers should be played at a reasonable volume, which can be defined as being audible from a short distance, but not clearly audible from more than 50 metres away. Volume should also be strictly limited in residential areas after 10pm. PNTL night patrols should then make checks on late-night businesses to ensure compliance. Businesses found in violation should be fined, while repeat violators should be shut down.
  • Municipal authorities can organise civic education sessions within all Dili aldeias to teach residents about the concept of noise pollution, including the importance of controlling noise for community wellbeing, general health, economic improvement and quality of life. These should also involve educating informal workers such as tiga roda sellers that playing loud music disturbs peace and quiet in communities, and suggest other methods to market their services, such as ringing a bell. Municipal authorities could also collaborate with Xefe Suku and Xefe Aldeia to implement local measures such as tara bandu rules for playing music at reduced volume, not revving motorcycles or using horns unnecessarily, and not gathering in large groups on the street at night.
  • While implementing the measures listed above may reduce noise pollution, there are many other interlinked problems which the State must address in order to guarantee that all citizens can enjoy peaceful, secure and prosperous lives. Therefore, in addition to taking specific actions to combat noise pollution, the State must take steps to address the root causes of antisocial behaviour and general uncleanliness and disorder in the city, especially lack of economic opportunity, education, facilities, entertainment, rule of law and environmental management.

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