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EAST TIMOR: UN Helps to Mitigate Disaster Risk

Matt Crook

DILI, Jun 23 2009 (IPS) - Disasters happen regularly in East Timor, but until now, the institutions called on to deal with them have struggled to effectively react to seasonal events that impact thousands of Timorese lives every year.

“We are yet to be truly prepared to act together as one to plan for the consequences of disasters, as well as to develop strategies for reducing the risks faced by our brothers and sisters who live in vulnerable locations,” said Francisco do Rosario, director of the National Disaster Management Directorate (NDMD) – part of the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MSS).

With more than 40 percent of the population of 1.1 million below the poverty line and the majority of the nation’s poor living in rural areas, when disasters hit, they can be devastating, especially as about 80 percent of households rely on subsistence agriculture to survive.

“The general definition of disasters we promote is that a disaster is something that takes a community beyond its coping capacities. So you might have a village of 20 households, and if there’s a localised windstorm that flattens half of their crops and it’s beyond their capacity to recover, then that’s a disaster,” said James Hardman, a project manager for the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Crisis Prevention and Recovery Unit.

East Timor is prone to an impressive ensemble of disasters: drought, erratic rains, flooding, landslides, windstorm erosion, monsoons, deforestation and crop infestation.

Responding to the need to have an effective system in place to deal with disasters, UNDP is collaborating with the NDMD on an one-year project called Disaster Risk Management Institutional and Operational Systems Development in East Timor.

The 468,000-dollar project, launched in April and funded by the European Commission and UNDP, focuses on supporting the NDMD so that it can prepare for and respond to disasters in all 13 districts.

“The role of the NDMD in emergency response is basically to coordinate, not so much to do. It’s the job of the NDMD to provide coordination and support to the other ministries, whether it’s the police or part of the MSS providing social assistance,” said Hardman.

“That’s difficult in this sort of environment. Ministries have been struggling to get their own houses in order, as you’d expect in such a new country, so there hasn’t been much space for developing whole government approaches,” he explained.

By the end of the project, the aim is for there to be structural operational procedures in place to support the country’s national disaster operation centre, housed in the MSS.

Currently district-level centres are being established in Bobonaro and Lautem districts – with plans to eventually open stations in all 13 districts.

“The district disaster operations centre is supposed to be an operational body that deals with things as they develop. Say there’s flooding in one [village] – they coordinate the information and pass it on to the district administrator and it flows to the national or regional level where decisions on appropriate response are made,” said Hardman.

Although statistical data is limited, each year in East Timor, heavy rain causes flooding – mostly in the south – and landslides. Drought conditions affect many parts of the country, especially during the El Niño cycle of weather fluctuations, the most recent of which finished in 2007.

According to the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology, there is a possibility of another El Niño this year.

Manatuto in central East Timor is of particular risk to disasters. The hillsides are regularly hit with drought – due to unreliable rains during the wet season from November to May – plus deforestation and fires.

In Covalima in the southwest, communities are prone to regular flooding; while in Lautem in the east, there are high seasonal risks of flooding, landslides, drought and forest fires.

Although work on community-based disaster-risk-management practices is still in its early stages, Concern, Oxfam and Care are among the most active non-governmental organisations working in the field.

Maris Palencia is Concern’s DRR programme coordinator.

“We work in Lautem and Manufahi [districts],” Palencia said. “We support the efforts of the NDMD in the formation of the disaster management committees from the [village] level. We have public awareness activities in the communities and we facilitate community-based disaster risk management,” she added.

“We also have several activities to teach people how to prepare for disasters and what they can do before, during and after. We work with local government and local NGOs because we will be handing it over to them,” Palencia explained.

Lautem is considered a model for disaster management structures in East Timor. As one of the first structures to be established, the communities in the district have undergone many challenges, Palencia said.

“To get organised, to respond in an appropriate and timely manner – it saves lives and livelihoods,” she said.

About one-third of East Timor’s population regularly experiences food shortages and nearly half of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

In the western part of the country, agricultural pest infestation poses a significant threat.

In February 2007 there was a major infestation of locusts that started in the western districts of Bobonaro and Ermera. By April, about 4,500 hectares of crops had been affected while about 80 percent of the maize planting areas and 70 percent of the rice seedlings for the next crops had been destroyed.

The infestation spread south to Covalima, which, along with Bobonaro, produces about a quarter of the nation’s rice.

The locust outbreak and drought that year caused a 30 percent decline in crop production nationwide.

“The outbreak in 2007 was most likely linked to the delayed onset of the rainy season followed by a period of irregular rains combined with dry spells. This was the moment FAO was requested by the government to help,” said Fabrizio Cesaretti, emergency coordinator for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

After FAO assisted the government to get the infestation under control using aerial and ground spraying of pesticides. Now, a programme has been launched so that future infestations could be caught and controlled earlier.

“We launched a capacity-building project working with the Ministry of Agriculture and the communities prone to the risk of locust outbreaks to set up a monitoring and reporting system of potential infestation. This way you can control it from the beginning,” Cesaretti said.

The ministry got a chance to test out its newly learned capabilities earlier this year when a potential outbreak of locusts was detected in the western districts of Bobonaro and Oecussi.

“The assessment carried out on both sides of the border [with Indonesian West Timor] didn’t identify major threats. There was an increase in population in one species, but it’s not so harmful,” Cesaretti added. “A good sign from our side was to see that the field offices of the Ministry of Agriculture were able to identify the form of locust population they had and the phase they were at. If you can identify the phase you can do the control better,” he said.

FAO also supports trans-boundary cooperation between Indonesia and East Timor. The first Technical Workshop on Migratory Locust Issues, organised by FAO, was held in Bali Mar. 31 to Apr. 1.

Meanwhile, Hardman is confident that the work he does with the government over the next 12 months will continue past the initial project’s allotted time to help build an institution that will save lives.

“UNDP’s view is that it’s not just a 12-month project, but part of a four- to five-year plan, so we want to come up with a strategy that identifies what to do for future disaster risk management projects, leading into phase two,” Hardman said, “If there isn’t continuity from the government and donors then the work we do in these 12 months would be at risk.”

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