TIMOR-LESTE: Fragile environment in jeopardy

Replanting of costal flora, such as mangroves, is needed to stop the effects of rising sea levels and extreme weather that destroying Timor-Leste’s coastline

DILI, 31 July 2008 (IRIN) – Since it was built in 1983, residents of Dili have watched the retaining wall of the Pantai Kelapa road along Timor-Leste’s coastline slowly erode.

Some say it is because of the effects of climate change – increasing numbers of ferocious storms have caused waves to batter the edges of the road.

But it is impossible to be certain because of a 25-year gap in environmental data.

“There is data starting from the 1950s but it’s not complete because of the Indonesian occupation,” Adao Soares, Timor-Leste’s national focal point for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, told IRIN.

“So starting from 1975 there is no climate data for Timor-Leste until 2000.”

A lack of data is not the only challenge. Limited human resources make it difficult to undertake impact, vulnerability and adaptation studies. The fledgling nation is seeking funding to tackle climate change from various places – including the Global Environment Facility, but it is unlikely to come through before 2010.

“[Also] as a new country we have not completed our environmental legislation so we have limited capacity to deal with climate change issues or environmental issues in general,” Soares told IRIN.

Deforestation and slash-and-burn farming practices make Timor-Leste vulnerable to climate change

Signs of trouble

“People in Timor-Leste are basically living on the edge anyway,” Lynne Kennedy, Oxfam livelihood and food security coordinator, told IRIN.

“They are living in a country where the climate is very variable and not predictable in some places,” she said. “It’s becoming increasingly more so.”

Signs of an environment in trouble are everywhere in Timor-Leste. Rivers are filling up with silt washed down from higher ground as the hillsides erode, causing water to breach the banks. Landslides destroy roads in the wet season, causing havoc for rural residents.

“As for bio-diversity, there is no data that indicates we have lost it, but a few communities say some native trees are already gone because of the climate changing,” Soares told IRIN.

Mountain communities are reporting an increase in temperature, Soares said, adding
that rising sea levels also pose a dire problem for coastal areas – including the capital, Dili, which is only several metres above sea level.

Farmers and food security

Farmers too are noticing changes in the environment. Despite the lack of data, agricultural experts cite farmers who say traditional practices and planting cycles no longer fit with the changing weather patterns.

“The seasons are no longer clear for them, they are confused about it,” Arsenio Pereria from HASATIL, an NGO that focuses on sustainable agriculture, told IRIN. “In Timor-Leste we have two seasons and two times for planting, but right now that has all moved.”

The usual challenges faced by farmers – including those posed by the El Niño effect – are now being exacerbated by changing weather patterns.

“You can have crops that fail one year because of a lack of rain and you’ll have crops that are washed away the next year by flooding,” Kennedy told IRIN. “Then you might get attacked by locusts which aren’t behaving in the same way the locusts have behaved previously … anything you can think of.”

Education and change

“Poor agricultural practices are evident, many of which are driven by a lack of education or poverty,” Soares said, adding that while most Timorese are aware that climate change is an issue, they are forced by poverty to over-farm the land and degrade the soil and the environment.

Soares said the government had to realise poverty reduction goes hand-in-hand with improving the environment. “We should have a programme on renewable energy – solar power for example, [so] we don’t have to spend a lot of money on fuel.”

The young nation also requires the financial and technical support of the international community.

“We have limited capacity to deal with climate-change adaptation in Timor-Leste, that is why we need capacity-building for our people – especially experts – and meteorology equipment to monitor [changing weather patterns],” Soares said.

The increasing challenge is also convincing the international community that additional money is needed to deal with disaster preparedness and mitigation, Kennedy said, on top of current funding for environmental development projects.

“We are fighting on all these fronts at one time and we can’t do it with the same resources – it is nonsense to say we should be using development money to try to protect people against increasing natural disasters,” Kennedy said.

sm/bj/mw

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