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El Niño impacts thousands of families in Timor-Leste

Monday, 28 March 2016 13:09 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This year the rains have not come and farming has been impossible

Timor-Leste is a tiny country of about 1.1 million people, but estimates suggest that up to 150,000 people – 12 per cent of the population – may be affected by extreme drought brought on by the El Niño weather phenomenon.

Lucia, 44, and Fransisco, 43, have four children under the age of 14. The family’s main source of income is agriculture and they are part of a 12-home cooperative in Lautem, northeast Timor-Leste, that grows and sells a variety of produce.

In a normal year, the families grow crops according to the weather cycle: cabbage from December to March, water spinach from March to April, and tomatoes, beans and other vegetables from April to June. By now this year, they should have earned between $150 and $200.

But 2016 has been different. The rains have not come and farming has been impossible.

Finding ways to get by

 Lucia now collects firewood from the hills and sells it for 10 cents a bundle. This brings in about ${esc.dollar}10 a month. She also makes tais – traditional Timorese woven scarves.

“I can profit about ${esc.dollar}50 per tais but the demand is not high in our area and so we seldom sell.”

Francisco finds work as a labourer from time to time.

“At the moment, I am shovelling sand into trucks near our community. I earn ${esc.dollar}8 per day, but these jobs are intermittent and unreliable.”

The impact of drought

Lucia’s village gets its water from a gravity-fed water system, but the spring is almost dry, making water hard to come by. Before school each day, children are sent to neighbouring communities to fetch water, meaning they are usually late to class as they have to travel up to two hours on foot each day.

These communities are running out of options and it’s having an impact on people’s health, especially children. Girls and boys aren’t getting enough to eat, there’s little in the way of clean water for drinking, washing and cleaning, and sickness like diarrhoea is becoming more common. Food prices in the market are up and Lucia’s family only has rice mixed with hot water for their meals. If the kids get sick, they can’t afford treatment.

“If the rain does not come we will have to move our family and live in the mountains where there is more water – or wait here to die,” said Lucia.

Other areas along the Lautem coast are facing similar problems: water scarcity coupled with massive loss of livestock. One community reported that 32 buffalo have died so far with this drought. Another family says eight of their 20 buffalo have perished while the remaining 12 aren’t healthy enough to be sold. 

Livestock die after drinking salt water from the sea, the only conceivable option left as their wells and water holes have run dry. There are now areas that the community avoids due to the overwhelming smell of rotting carcasses.

Scrambling to respond

Plan International Timor-Leste works in Aileu and Lautem to ensure children have access to clean water for drinking and washing, along with sanitary toilet facilities. The organisation supports the government and development partners to map and monitor water sources at risk of drying up and distribute information about water conservation, all the while ready to respond – by repairing water systems and getting water to communities in need – if called on by the authorities.

Plan International, Care, Oxfam, Caritas and World Vision – agencies that have formed an alliance through a Humanitarian Partnership Agreement (HPA) – have launched a joint report on El Niño in Timor-Leste. Without adequate food supplies and limited future crop growth, it is estimated that 100,000 to 150,000 people will be at risk of an acute food and livelihood crisis, according to the report.

Some 65 per cent of households surveyed have less than one month of food stocks remaining and 55 per cent of surveyed families are reducing their meal intake.

Women are bearing the brunt of the impact of El Niño, spending more time collecting water and tending to domestic activities. Some women are even reporting an increase in domestic disputes both at home and in the community.

Learn more about Plan International's work in Timor-Leste.