Timor Leste’s battle with climate change and COVID-19

Thursday, April 15, 2021

After a night of torrential rain resulting from Tropical Cyclone Seroja, Dili the capital city of Timor Leste woke up on Easter Sunday to severe floods causing extensive damage to homes, business, and infrastructure. In the worst impacted areas, the water level rose above two metres, swept away homes and as a result at least 42 people have sadly lost their lives.

About 30 percent of the island nation’s population live in Dili following a surge of migration to the city from rural areas. This rapid urban growth has strained public services and placed growing demand for improved infrastructure.

Dili is expanding in some of the most economically attractive but ecologically vulnerable terrain, including coastal areas and flood plains, where the natural environment is compromised by infrastructure growth. This has left concentrated populations more vulnerable to extreme weather events and the effects of climate change.

Photo by Mercy Corps Timor Leste

Put simply, the capital’s urban systems are struggling to cope and, in some cases, buckling under the pressure – hence why a flooding event like the one last week can add even more pressure that leads to widespread disruption, or even death.

Then there’s the crippling impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March Dili entered its first lockdown after a worrying surge in COVID-19 cases. People were already under significant socio-economic stress due to movement restrictions in the city. To make matters worse, the first batch of vaccines via COVAX have only just arrived in Dili last week. And it was at this precise moment that Cyclone Seroja devastated parts of Timor-Leste.

Warehouses with the country’s medical supplies and main COVID quarantine isolation centre were impacted. This means the government is now tasked with responding to floods and preventing COVID transmission as thousands of people seek shelter in crowded evacuation centres.

Elsewhere in the world, with COVID-19 vaccines still not widely available or accessible for the most vulnerable countries and communities, the compound risks of natural hazards like floods and the pandemic will continue to severely impact tens of millions of lives and livelihoods.

That’s why Mercy Corps has been providing support to local communities to help them prepare for, as well as limit, the compounded risks and impacts of COVID-19; and disasters since the start of the pandemic in countries such as Nepal, Indonesia, and Timor Leste.

Photo by Mercy Corps Timor Leste

We know from our experience that floods cause people to congregate on higher ground and seek safety in crowded evacuation shelters. Floods and their resulting impacts, such as loss of housing, damage to critical infrastructure including health facilities, congregated sheltering, and exposure to contaminated water, can further exacerbate socio-economic conditions of communities that are already suffering from the impacts of COVID-19.

What’s clear to us is that climate change and COVID-19 are putting extreme pressure on communities’ livelihoods and health systems. In addition, they are exacerbating existing inequalities and underlying drivers of poverty and vulnerability.

Mercy Corps is a member of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance which recently published a paper calling for stronger long-term resilience planning that addresses concurrent climate, disaster and health related shocks and stresses. In addition, we believe strongly that COVID-19 economic stimulus and recovery plans need to pay attention to these potential shocks and stresses.

More than this, emergency response plans must be updated to account for COVID-19, considering how to manage safe, socially distanced evacuations and keep vulnerable and potentially infected patients separated at evacuation sites.

Further preparatory measures include risk-informed livelihood development, early warning systems that reach communities, and climate-smart agriculture techniques.

Climate finance must also be made available for promoting nature-based solutions that take advantage of ecosystem services to protect water, soil and community assets; and creating new or strengthening existing funding mechanisms that marginalized communities can access for community-based risk reduction and recovery.

Investing in solutions that strengthen governance structures

A recently established program funded by the European Union for the Maloa river system in Dili, Timor Leste aims to strengthen watershed planning and management for floods and disasters whilst supporting business economic recovery to COVID-19 through joint planning across government, business, community and civil society stakeholders.

Whilst these interventions come too late for this week’s devastating floods in Dili, sadly this will not be the last disaster the capital will face.

Photo by Mercy Corps Timor Leste

Learning how the current flooding is impacting populations, services and infrastructure, and exposing underlying vulnerabilities will be critical.

That’s why comprehensive risk management plans and interventions must be designed to reduce both the risks and impacts of floods in vulnerable communities, as climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

Because let’s face it, climate change is having devastating impacts on vulnerable communities and it’s long overdue that the international community help them prepare for and meet the challenges thrust upon them by floods and other natural hazards.

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