Fight to save water in Timor Leste 

CDU senior horticulture lecturer Tania Paul recently returned from Timor Leste after looking into the vulnerability of its water supply

A gruelling 10 km trek over rugged mountains to fill a small bucket of precious water is a daily struggle for many villagers in Timor Leste.

Like other developing countries recovering from a brutal past, Timor Leste relies on water to grow the food it needs to survive and boost its fledgling economy, but this life-giving resource is under threat.

A joint project between Charles Darwin University and Geoscience Australia is working to help Timor Leste determine the vulnerability of its water supply and protect this life-giving resource against the threat of climate change.

While geologists map the type and location of the country’s underground aquifers, a team of researchers from CDU’s Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods visited more than 30 local villagers to find out how people use the water and how access can be improved.

In Dili there is a sedimentary aquifer that offers up a large supply of good quality water for anyone who needs it and the city’s residents benefit from infrastructure to ensure people get the water they need.

But in the highlands of Aileu and Manatuto, outside of Dili, collecting water is a desperate daily struggle.

Some villagers are forced to move their families from their highland homes closer to the water source during Timor Leste’s long dry season that sees vital springs dry up for months at a time.

CDU’s Tania Paul led a team of researchers who spent two months meeting people who draw water from three different aquifer types – sedimentary, fractured rock and limestone – to gauge how water was treated differently and its impact on the survival and economy of the village.

 “We heard some amazing stories like people who had to walk 10 km through the mountains twice a day to fill a small bucket up with water,” Ms Paul said. “You could see the hardship in their faces.”

With Timor Leste’s population of 1.7 million people expected to grow by 2.4 per cent, the Government of Timor Leste is under pressure to make sure there is enough water to go around.

The researchers estimated that 44 per cent of the country’s population live in areas where the water source is low quality and quantity, making them more vulnerable to predicted changes to the water source from climate change.

Temperatures in Timor Leste are expected to rise by between 0.4°C and 1°C by 2030, cyclones and rainfall will become less frequent but more extreme and the sea level is expected to rise by 6 cm to 15 cm, according to the climate change predictions from the Pacific Climate Change Science Program.

This means Timor Leste will experience intense rainfall events similar to the 2010–11 wet season when heavy rainfall ran through the island nation’s engorged streams, creeks and rivers out to the ocean without replenishing the underground aquifers.

The heavy rains destroyed most of the country’s food crops of rice, maize and cassava, leaving only a few crops to plant for the next season. There are also fears of the potential impact on the country’s growing coffee industry, which relies on cooler temperatures and a plentiful water supply to survive.

The joint Geoscience Australia and CDU research will provide advice to the Government’s National Adaptation Program for Action to ensure reliable water and food supplies for the people of Timor Leste.

Priority actions include monitoring groundwater resources to better understand water availability, irrigation maintenance, diversifying agriculture and reduce waste and overuse of the existing water supplies.

Ms Paul said she hoped the research project, undertaken with Dr Marcal Gusmao from the National University of Timor Lorosa’e, could lead to similar work to help fight the affects of climate change. The research project was funded by the Australian Government under the Pacific Adaptation Strategy Assistance Program, through the International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative.