Home Analisa Failure to address flood in Dili reflects development challenge in Timor-Leste

Failure to address flood in Dili reflects development challenge in Timor-Leste

Joao da Cruz Cardoso. [Foto: Doc. privadu | 18.01.2024]

Written by Joao da Cruz Cardoso | Independent Analysis | Email: cardoso.elijoao@gmail.com

Once again, a 2-hour rain on 9 January 2024 caused floods in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, triggering the dark memory of floods in April 2021 that resulted in the death of 13 people, displaced around 7,000 people and damaged various infrastructure. Since then, heavy rain no longer serves as a normal natural phenomenon, but rather a fearful occurrence due to the destructive impacts it brings.

The contributing factors to floods in Dili are known and widely discussed to include, among others:

  • Clearing of upstream areas for housing development and farming, which increases sedimentation of rivers and streams, minimizing their carrying capacity;
  • Disposal of trash into the rivers and drainage, blocking the water ways;
  • Construction of infrastructure particularly houses without drainage system, trapping water in the residential areas; and
  • Poor urban planning to organize proper sanitation system and safe settlement areas.

Often times, the government adopts reactive measures to address these issues, for example, by dredging sediments from the river, repairing retaining walls, and removing trash during or after a rain event when the water ways are clogged. The focus has mostly leaned towards structural flood mitigation measures leading to building more infrastructure to minimize the impacts of flood while neglecting the non-structural mitigation such as controls over land use, building and development. As such, the constructions of houses in Dili become an opportunistic endeavour without regards for safety of others or the need to consider drainage and waste collection system as well as easy delivery of other essential public services. At the same time, the government has not maximized the opportunity to apply adaptation strategies, for instance, by restoring lowland areas previously functioned as water retention zones and using permeable pavements to allow run-off to flow through them.

However, using only technical approach to resolve issue of flood in Dili is no longer adequate because it is now inextricably tied to the country’s current state of development.

According to the latest Timor-Leste Population and Housing Census, population in Dili has increased to 324,738 in 2022 from 277,279 in 2015 – indicating a 13% increase over seven year period. Dili, correspondingly, has the highest population density in the country – 1,424 per square kilometre and accounts for 24% of Timor-Leste’s population. The 2022 Census Report also highlights that only Dili has positive net internal migration where around “130 thousand people born elsewhere in Timor-Leste now live in Dili”, while other municipalities have lost population from internal migration. This reflects the trend that economic opportunities are concentrated in Dili. Therefore, urban problems in Dili cannot be addressed without easing off the pressure of inward migration. Similarly, measures to prevent and reduce harmful impacts of floods cannot be fully implemented if hazard-prone areas and water ways are continuously occupied for settlements.

In recent years, poor urban planning has been discussed as one of the main contributing factors to many urban problems in Dili, including floods. Absence of good urban planning restricts government’s ability to control what and where development can take place. This leads to the government’s inefficiency to take action against construction of houses and buildings in unsuitable areas because the systems of governance are not properly organized and structured to make decision and implement policy and programs for urban development. The government, with the support from JICA, has developed Dili Urban Master Plan in 2016 to better organize the rapidly expanding capital city. Such urban master plan must be adopted as part of national programs to ensure its implementation even there is a change in the government administration. This will allow the opportunity for the government to manage, control and reinforce regulations pertaining to further development and expansion of the city.

While poor urban planning and urban governance contribute to the inability to resolve floods in Dili, it is now intertwined with a much bigger challenge in Timor-Leste’s quest for development. So far, the country has not been able to create conditions for economic activities to take place outside Dili, forcing more people to move to the capital. This does not only hinder the efforts to address problems such as floods, but also presents an enormous barrier to tackle wider issues of unemployment and poverty due to lack of development in the rural areas where 72% of the Timorese population live – contributing to continuous migration to Dili and making it difficult to organize the city to become more resilient against natural disasters including floods. Lack of economic activities in the rural areas also hinders the country from achieving a more balanced development.

The two-decade-old country, understandably, should prioritise the efforts to address widespread poverty, improve the economy and strengthen the quality of education. These are conditions that will make it easier for the country to tackle urban problems such as flood due to better  public’s understanding and awareness about the importance of their role to make the city safe, for example, by not building houses in the flood zones, not throwing trash into the drainage and rivers, having respect for the regulations and protecting the environment.

For the long term, Timor-Leste should not only work hard to build a strong economy but it needs to build a sense of ownership and responsibility among the people as an integral part of the efforts to develop the country. Having strong economy and good education does not automatically translate into consciuous actions for common good because, as observed many times in Dili, plastic bottles and cigarette buds are regularly thrown out from moving expensive cars without slightest care.

In a way, recurring event of flood  in Dili serves as a wake-up call for the country to address capital city-centric development and re-define path for a more equilibrium development to take place by enabling the economy to thrive in the rural parts of the country. This will not only reduce the pressure of internal migration to Dili and allow the opportunity to reorganize the capital city, but most importantly, it can help the country to achieve a more healthy economy in the long run.

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