Preparing for Disasters in East Timor

East Timor

A first-aid training session run as part of a CRS Disaster Risk Reduction program in East Timor. Photo by CRS staff

“With a lot of the deaths that happen, it’s children coming from school and crossing a river. Sometimes during the rainy season, the current is too swift,” says Ryan Russell, former Livelihoods Coordinator for Catholic Relief Services in East Timor. “People get washed away—especially children and old people.”

High in the mountains, villagers in this impoverished country near Australia cope with flooding, landslides, and other disasters on a regular basis. “It’s pretty challenging terrain,” Russell continues. “Sometimes we can’t access the communities—we’d drive and the car would get stuck. One time we had to hike for two or three hours, covered in mud. When the roads are cut off like that, getting people to hospitals is hard.”

At certain times of the year, powerful winds strike the mountain villages, ripping branches from trees and spreading fire. During dry seasons, villagers’ palm-thatch houses are easily set aflame. “My house was destroyed,” says a local farmer. “The kitchen, its cupboards, everything.” Villagers also suffer burns and injuries.

Catholic Relief Services is teaching rural communities how to save their lives and their homes. Villagers draw hazard maps, showing where they expect trouble if storms or winds come. They create early warning systems–such as floating buoys showing when river levels become dangerously high–so children know not to cross.

For evacuation scenarios, villagers identify buildings near them that are strong and safe, or open places where nothing can fall on them. They do simulation exercises–like ringing bells in the village to alert people to danger, or checking to see if people are still in their houses. They also receive first-aid training, and learn how to work with the local government to prepare for the worst.

“It seems to have really assured communities and improved response times,” says Russell. “This year, when there was substantial flooding and landslides in new project areas such as Quelicai, there were no lives lost, even though there was substantial damage to houses and fields. Coordinating with the government meant people got help faster.”

Responding fast when disaster strikes keeps people safe, but protecting their crops can involve more long-term solutions. “My rice crop was almost harvested–27 acres. Then a landslide came and took it all,” says a farmer. At a meeting in one village, all twenty farmers say they’ve lost crops to disaster.

“The landslides and droughts do a lot of damage,” says Rita Freitas, CRS’ Community-Based Disaster Risk Management Project Manager. “Sometimes we see landslides because a lot of trees have been cut down in certain areas.”

CRS encourages villagers to create tree nurseries so that solid roots can prevent erosion and landslides. Now, “We don’t cut trees close to our homes or near landslide areas,” says a farmer. “And we plant trees to mitigate floods.”

Funded by the International Organization for Migration and the Australian government, the Disaster Risk Management program is preventing tragedy and protecting livelihoods in some of Timor’s poorest areas. Villagers feel safer now, and farmers know there are ways to save some of their crops if the worst comes. “In the past, we didn’t think about tree planting or making diversion channels for water. We had no information,” says another farmer. “Now we have a chance against disaster.”

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