Timor-Leste—also known as East Timor–is one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia. It was the center of the world’s attention around the turn of the millennium when, having been occupied by its powerful neighbor Indonesia for almost a quarter of a century, its citizens overwhelming voted for independence through a UN organized referendum in 1999. In 2002, Timor-Leste formally became the first independent nation of the 21st century.
There is enormous concern in Timor-Leste about COVID-19, with the government announcing a nation-wide state of emergency on March 27. As the number of cases continues to increase throughout the region, there are fears that a large outbreak in Timor-Leste would devastate a country in which over 40% of its population continue to live in poverty.
At both the preventative and treatment level, Timor-Leste faces huge challenges. There are very few well-equipped medical facilities outside of the capital city Dili, and even these are not prepared to handle a large number of patients with severe respiratory illnesses. Many within the country fear that a serious outbreak would completely overwhelm the nation’s limited health system, resulting in very high mortality rates.
Prevention is therefore critically important. It is well known that the most important defense against COVID-19 which individuals can do for themselves is to regularly wash hands with soap and water. But even this simple safeguard can be very difficult to promote in Timor-Leste. Many parts of the country are dry for most of the year, with 4 in 10 people not having regular access to an improved water supply. When water is in such short supply, having enough to use for handwashing becomes a real challenge.
There are positives though. For several years, international development organizations have been supporting Timor-Leste’s government increase resilience to outside shocks, especially climate change.
One such project is the Increasing Community Resilience in Oecusse Program (ICRO), which is funded by the United States Government’s United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and implemented by World Neighbors. It focuses on the conservation, protection and sustainable management of rural water systems in Oecusse, a municipality generally believed to have great potential for economic development but, which at the moment has some of the countries’ worse social, health and economic indicators.
Although the main focus of the project is increasing access to safe water for consumption, the current pandemic has brought to light to a number of corollary benefits helping communities prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.
Promoting the importance of handwashing has been part of ICRO since it started in 2015. It’s had results:
- Handwashing before food preparation 2015: 0% 2018: 53%
- Handwashing before eating 2015: 60% 2018: 73%
- Handwashing before feeding a child 2015: 0% 2018: 23%
- Handwashing after defecation
2015: 20% 2018: 62%
These numbers increased through community-based education program. In addition, World Neighbors trained the villages in making “tippy taps” – simple low-cost technology used for handwashing in areas where water is scarce. Jerry cans, which are hung with rope mounted on a simple bamboo structure, are operated with a foot pedal causing it to tip and release enough water for handwashing. Near the tippy tap is a soap container. Provision of a cleaning agent and education about the importance of handwashing is critical to the success of these inexpensive and easily installed public handwashing stations.
Before the program began, many of the rural water system networks had disintegrating pipes which no longer functioned. In other areas, there was no piping system at all. Both these situations meant that people fetching the water were forced to collect it from its source – the spring itself. But through the program, new networks have been installed, while existing ones have been repaired with multiple tap stands spread throughout the village. This means that people have to travel far less distance, and there less people queuing per access-point, making it much easier to implement social distancing.
Increasing economic resilience is also critically important at this time. Almost everyone in Oecusse’s rural communities are subsistence dryland farmers. They have little access to formal banking systems and are unable to access capital easily during times of exceptional need, as will occur if the current emergency period continues for a significant amount of time.
In most of the villages in which the program operates, residents have established community-based saving and credit groups. Villagers contribute small amounts to the group and take out small loans, at nominal interest. Members are trained in literacy and basic bookkeeping skills. In normal times, these loans are used to pay for their children’s school fees, or make small improvements on their homes. During this COVID-19 emergency, they could be used for more immediate needs. This “micro safety net” is essential given the government’s limited budget and reduced ability to borrow and spend compared to how governments of developed nations can react to counter economic shocks.
Finally, because the program has increased access to water, vegetable gardens have been created near the waterpoints. This has greatly increased the nutritional intake of households compared to the very basic diet of maize, rice and other local staple foods normally consumed by rural communities in the region. This has improved people’s health and their immune systems – again a very important preventative measure against COVID-19.
A coronavirus outbreak in Timor-Leste would almost certainly be devastating. But residents in many villages are in a better position to face it than they would have been without these investments in water-focused climate-change resilience projects. This approach also illustrates the advantages for development organizations of using a more holistic approach to development, rather than the more narrowly defined thematic or sectoral approach still used by many. This connection between improving climate change resilience and virus resilience provides a lesson for how all nations can better prepare for the next global shock.
This article is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of World Neighbors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.