Global Policy Forum

Timor-Leste: Water Supplies Running on Empty

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February 8, 2010

Ask anyone in rural Timor-Leste what they want most and the answer is always water.

"We don't have any," complained Filomena Brites, 35, who walks up to 3km four times a day to the nearest spring to fetch water from her home in Lisapat, a tiny village high in the coffee-growing hills of Ermera District.

"Sometimes I go. Sometimes the children [go]," she told IRIN. "But one of us will go. We don't have a choice."

According to Timor-Leste's National Statistics Directorate, almost 40 percent of the country's 1.1 million inhabitants lack access to an improved water source.

The problem is most evident in rural areas where approximately 75 percent of the population lives - 44.4 percent do not have access against about 15 percent in urban areas.

In the eastern districts of Baucau, Lautem and Viqueque, and Oecussi District, an enclave inside Indonesia, that figure tops more than 50 percent.

One community's story

Much of the country's rural water systems fell into disrepair years ago.

Of Lisapat's 800 households, only 18 have access to piped water, with the rest relying on a nearby spring. Before 2002, everyone had access.

"It's a big problem and one that we need to fix," said Julio do Rosario Lemos, 34, who was recently elected the village's head.

The government has made it a national priority for 2010, but despite its vast oil reserves, the world's newest independent nation is also Asia's poorest.

Most water pipes in Lisapat fell into disrepair years ago Moreover, the country's National Directorate of Water and Sanitation Services (DNSAS) has limited resources.

"In many villages there are pipes with no water. In others there never have been," Bishnu Pokhrel, a water and hygiene specialist with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN, citing poor management, lack of awareness, low institutional capacity and the impact of the 1999 political crisis, when East Timor chose independence from Indonesia in a referendum. Between 70 and 80 percent of the country's water system was destroyed in the ensuing violence and displacement.


Rebuilding those systems today is just part of the equation. Despite significant investment by international donors, sustainability remains the biggest challenge.

"Sustainable water systems is the key goal," Keryn Clark, programme team leader for the Timor-Leste Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Programme (RWSSP), an AusAID-funded project working with the Timorese government to improve water supplies, told IRIN.

On some projects in the past, the focus had been more on laying pipes that on community management, she said. It was critical that the community, which ultimately will be managing the system, is fully on board from the very beginning.

Access to water must be a priority, said Julio do Rosario Lemos, Lisapat's newly elected village head Maintenance of the infrastructure is also critical and outside Dili, the capital, few spare parts are available.

While many of the country's community water management groups are well organized, others are less so and may not have the knowledge or means to undertake necessary repairs.

"You need to determine what the community can realistically manage and what they can't, and then how you can support them," Clark said, emphasizing that community training is key.

"Once the water system is established and handed over to the community, we should have a bridging time to follow up technical support for the group," UNICEF's Pokhrel added.

Institutional capacity

The government must have the necessary capacity to backstop the water user groups when necessary - underscoring the need for greater institutional capacity, he said.

Until recently, each district had just one non-technical rural water supply and there was only one fully trained water engineer in the whole country.

Now with support from AusAID, another district level technical person has been added, as well as one or two community facilitators at the sub-district level, focusing on community management and sanitation.

"These are all key points in making the system more sustainable," Clark said. "If we can actually make the systems that have been built, or are in the process of being built, work properly and [be] more sustainable, more people will have access to water."


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