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Drought threatens 20k families in Timor-Leste

Thousands of Timorese families are watching their crops wither and their water supplies vanish.

Tuesday May 31, 2016

Safe drinking water has always been precious in Timor-Leste. Drought conditions triggered by El Niño have made it even scarcer. Photos: Australian Red Cross/Zayne D'Crus

Water has always been scarce and precious in the hills of Timor-Leste.

Life in most rural communities revolves around the search for water. Women and girls, often expected to fetch water for their families, can spend hours each day carrying heavy containers back and forth from the nearest stream. What they bring home is rarely safe to drink: illness and death from water-borne illnesses remains a leading cause of child mortality across the country.

This is why water, sanitation and hygiene are top priorities for Timor-Leste Red Cross. Since 2002, Red Cross has helped over 62,000 people to access clean water through gravity-fed supply systems and wells. A 2014 study found that Red Cross water systems - installed and maintained by local communities - lasted longer and functioned far better than the national average.  

Now, a drought threatens everything Timor's families have worked so hard to achieve.  

The El Niño climate cycle has greatly reduced rainfall, leading to drought conditions in many parts of Timor-Leste. As 63 per cent of the population relies on agriculture, families are watching their crops wither, their livestock perish and their household savings vanish.   If conditions continue, many thousands of people will face desperate poverty. Assessments by Red Cross teams have found many families foraging for wild plants for food, and eating less frequently to cope with food shortages. Others can no longer afford to send their children to school. 

Timor-Leste Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross plan to help 20,000 of the worst-affected people over the next 10 months. This will include cash transfers to help families meet immediate needs; nutrient-rich food for families with pregnant women, infants and young children; opportunities for people to find new sources of income; better access to safe water and sanitation facilities; and ongoing hygiene promotion to prevent disease. 

The Australian Government has contributed $200,000 to Timor-Leste Red Cross' relief effort: much-needed funds that will help families survive and cope until conditions improve.  

Red Cross also aims to help people prepare for future crises. As the El Niño cycle ends, a La Niña cycle may begin in the coming months, which should bring much-needed rain but can also trigger disastrous floods in parched areas of the country.     

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