It’s time to help communities adapt to climate change

by Kenny Hamilton | British Red Cross Society - UK
Monday, 19 September 2016 14:53 GMT

Angelo de Costa Belo, 54, a small-scale farmer in East Timor, has been unable to plant rice this year as a result of drought. Photo: IFRC/Sam Smith

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In East Timor, drought is devastating small farmers, but preparing and building resilience could help

In East Timor, drought is devastating small farmers, but preparing and building resilience could help

Arriving at the compact Nicolau Lobato Airport in Dili, it’s tempting to ask the question: why should anyone care about East Timor?? Certainly most people at home would struggle to pinpoint the small Southeast Asian nation on a map, let alone tell you anything about it.

The country, for those who know its history, is perhaps best known for its determined fight for independence. But even as the distinctive red, black and yellow flag rose over the newly independent nation in 2002, its existence as a nation barely registered on the conscience of many in the West.

Nestled between Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia, East Timor presents a picturesque landscape. Sandy beaches and jagged cliffs give rise to a countryside dotted with rice paddies, palm trees, traditional villages and, in the centre of the island, an impressive mountain range.

Yet, unlike neighbouring islands, it attracts relatively few tourists. It remains off the beaten track and there is little by way of tourist infrastructure. While the country may not be on many people’s radar, it is fast becoming symbolic of one of the biggest threats facing communities across the world: climate change.

 

LESS RAIN, LESS FOOD

Around 80 per cent of Timorese people depend on agriculture for subsistence and their livelihoods. The majority cultivate small-scale plots, barely enough to feed a family. So when the rains failed to materialise at the end of last year, the ensuing drought hit people hard.

Like rural communities across the world, Timorese farmers depend on crops and livestock to feed their families and, when possible, to earn a little income to support their children’s education.

Take away water and suddenly every aspect of life becomes hard. The threat of hunger and disease increases. The loss of livestock, often purchased as a means of investment, can ruin families financially. An adult buffalo is worth around $700, often representing the entire life savings of a rural family.

Some of the wealthier households are fortunate to have irrigation systems. Their vibrant green paddy fields stand in stark contrast to those of poorer families.

As you travel further into the worst-affected areas, bare rice paddies offer a far more convincing image of drought. Passing through small villages, you see lifeless fields where maize once grew, now lying barren and empty. A scattering of scrawny goats search the parched soil, hopeful of finding something to eat, and, as the journey continues deep into the countryside, you can see the tell-tale signs of empty wells and dry riverbeds.  

The drought, which has been brought on by the El Niño weather phenomenon, is severely affecting over 120,000 people. It’s no coincidence that the communities worst affected are the poorest.

They simply do not have the money to build irrigation systems. Life is often a daily struggle for existence. And with a potential La Niña weather event on the horizon that could bring increased rainfall and flooding, the picture does not become any easier. While both El Niño and La Niña are naturally occurring, they highlight how shifting weather patterns can devastate lives. 

 

BUILDING RESILIENCE

The UN envoy for climate and El Niño, ambassador Macharia Kamau, visited East Timor in July. He spoke about the need for communities to adapt to climate change. This is exactly what the Red Cross is trying to do: help communities become more resilient to climate change – not just in East Timor, but in countries across the world.

As an operations manager assisting the East Timor Red Cross, known locally as Cruz Vermelha de Timor-Leste, the challenges are very real. Funding for silent emergencies, those that don’t make headline news, is hard to come by. The devastating impacts of climate change do not elicit a public response in the same way as a sudden, major emergency such as an earthquake or conflict. So funds have to go far and must have a meaningful impact.

As the drought took hold, the East Timor Red Cross were first into many of the worst hit communities, trucking in tankers of drinking water. Jerry cans, hygiene items and now supplementary food for the most vulnerable are being distributed. But beyond that, building long-term resilience must also be a major component.

The priority is to help communities overcome chronic issues so they are better prepared for natural disasters, be they droughts, floods, landslides, storms or earthquakes. Not only does this save lives, it also makes financial sense when income is scarce.

Communities that have previously received resilience training in East Timor have still been affected by the drought, but to a lesser degree. The village of Haurobo stands as an example of the preparedness activities that define that approach.

A water tank that was installed by the East Timor Red Cross has helped ward off the worst effects of El Niño. The tank harvests rainwater via two sheets of corrugated iron. It’s simple and low tech, but means the community still has access to water for small agricultural plots.

So why should you care about East Timor? Because the situation that it faces today is indicative of a growing global problem. The poorest communities cannot be left alone to fight climate change. The international community – governments, aid organisations, corporations – need to step up and join these rural communities in the fight.

Kenny Hamilton is a British Red Cross emergency operations manager with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.