By Imogen Wilson.
Drought is devastating Timor-Leste, yet its people are forgotten.
In April I travelled to Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. I’d been working as Head of Communications for Plan International in the UK. I’d seen a lot of Plan’s work from my desk in London but made a decision to take the plunge and get a closer look by volunteering for three months to help boost the communications team in Timor-Leste. So along with my partner Tom, who is also volunteering, we packed up our flat in Islington and boarded our flight.
Arriving in a hot and dusty Dili we quickly realised there was a pressing problem to communicate. In our first week we were briefed on the effect the El Niño weather phenomenon was having. We learnt that while Papua New Guinea and West Timor had received funding to deal with the drought, the small island of Timor-Leste – which is sandwiched between them – had been forgotten.
The next day we booked in with the Plan International assessment team travelling to Lautem – one of the five areas worst affected by lack of rainfall – to see the story for ourselves. We wanted to collect stories and film local families and children to find out how they were coping with the drought and to help make sure their situation isn’t ignored.
Lautem is somewhere between four and six hours from the capital (depending on the driver and amount of coffee they’ve drunk). Travelling through the countryside you can’t help but be wowed by the changes of scenery. Each corner brings another jaw dropping vista, from the mountains, to the lush lowlands, to the quirky charm of Baucau and then finally into Lautem district where the landscape changes again. It’s a stunning combination, somewhere between the African Savannah, the Scottish Highlands and the Wild West.
On the approach to Lautem lines of giant palm trees stretched up, looking parched and covered in dust. This was the first sign of the story the area had to tell us.
There was no need to search or probe. As soon as people knew what we were asking, our questions brought concerned responses about long journeys to collect water, missed meals, failed crops and fears for the future. And with the primary responsibility for household tasks falling on women and girls, it was clear that they were bearing the brunt of the drought.
Dillyana, a mum of nine children, took us to see her field where she’d tried to plant beans, maize and pumpkin. Her soil was all dried out. Nothing was growing but a few shoots and she told us this would fail too if there was no rain.
On the road to Lospalos we met Angelina, a woman with a family of 12 hauling a cart with 75 litres* of water uphill from the spring to her house. She’s been making this journey every day since the tap outside her home dried up last December.
With so little water for the family’s daily needs, it isn’t hard to imagine how tough it is for women like Angelina who’ve been collecting and rationing water for months.
Imagine if you had to choose whether or not to wash clothes, who could bathe, and worrying, as you pass a cup of water to your children if it’s safe to drink.
Girls collecting water in Timor-Leste.
We met a group of girls walking to fetch and carry water. They told us they used to get water from the standpipe in their village, but now have to walk down a steep track to collect it from a spring.
They carry two or three jerry cans each back and forth, three times a day for up to six hours in all. Despite their smiles and stoic attitude, when we asked, they told us their bodies ached and they had little time to do much else.
With the ongoing drought livestock are also suffering. Ramaido da Costa, the Village Chief we met in the girls’ village told us that 180 goats and 260 buffalo had already died in his community. ‘There’s no rain, so no food for the animals’.
Hungry cattle look for pasture land in Timor-Leste
And down on the coast we also heard reports of thirsty cattle dying from drinking sea water.
The Timorese people are tough. They’ve survived decades of hardship and hungry times. But with 70% of the population reliant on rain-fed agriculture, over a third living on less than $0.55 a day and already high rates of stunting and child malnutrition, the current situation is alarming.
It’s clear from what we saw that this drought is stretching the resources of rural communities to the limit. They urgently need our support.
It’s up to us all to make sure the people of Timor-Leste are not forgotten at this difficult time.
Imogen and her partner Tom Hill have made a film about the drought affecting Timor-Leste. The film is Tom’s directorial debut!
Child malnutrition rates in Timor-Leste are at 50%, the third highest in the world. You can help Plan International support the children of Timor-Leste by sponsoring a child today.
You may also like Time For Volunteering.
Imogen Wilson was head of communications at children’s charity Plan International (UK) before deciding to go and work in the field, raising awareness of Plan’s work in Timor-Leste in South East Asia.