Thirsting for a Paris Deal in Timor Leste

Every morning in the sparsely populated region of Baguia, high in the mountains of Timor-Leste, women and children rise hours before dawn. They grab a couple of jugs and trek to the nearest spring, where they wait in line, in the dark. For water. They wait and wait, with dozens of others, to fetch just enough water for a day’s worth of cooking, washing and drinking. “The chickens are still asleep when we get up,” community leader and school principal Leopoldina Guterres told me.

Thousands of Timorese families rely on freshwater springs, which dwindle in the dry season (roughly July through October). But locals say this year is especially bad, and El Niño is expected to delay the rains further. What’s happening now is part of a pattern that scientists expect will continue with climate change: higher temperatures, dryer dry seasons, fluctuating rainfall and rising sea levels. This bodes ill for rural communities across Timor-Leste. “We are feeling the effects,” Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo told me in an interview last month. “Particularly in terms of water and sanitation,” he said. “Schools are finding it difficult to provide water…and it has effects on hygiene and so on.”

In Baguia, climate change isn’t an abstraction. It’s an imminent threat to most every aspect of daily life.

Guterres at a Baguia spring
Leopoldina Guterres (right) talks with a local villager at a fresh-water spring on a mountain in Baguia, where women gather every day to fill their jugs. Scientists say climate change could exacerbate dry-season water shortages in the mountains across Timor Leste.

Baguia sits on a treacherous, rocky road about six hours by four-wheel-drive from the capital, Dili. It’s more than 8,000 miles from Paris—yet it’s critically close to the issues at hand as delegates from 195 countries convene this week for the climate conference known as COP21. Like many small island nations and least developed countries, Timor-Leste is eyeing these talks carefully.

“Climate change is a global challenge that has a disproportionate impact on many small and vulnerable nations that have themselves contributed little to the problem,” Prime Minister Araújo said in a speech to the Columbia University World Leaders Forum in September. “As the whole peoples of some island nations are threatened, the craven self-interest of greater nations is laid bare,” he said, outlining his hopes for a “global solution” and “shared future” resulting from the Paris talks.

A few weeks later in Dili, Araújo elaborated. “I think the most important outcome that we would expect: for industrial countries to be open to a commitment to reduce carbon emissions, and also to be more open to policies to prevent further disaster,” he told me. “Particularly big countries like the United States of America, China, the UK—all these big, influential countries can be open to nail down a commitment to stop polluting the planet.”

This is critical to everyone’s future. “Big countries are suffering,” Araújo said, but the greatest “felt consequences” occur in small countries—like his own, and many others in the region.

In Timor-Leste—a developing nation of 1.2 million on half an island between Indonesia and Australia—climate change-related threats to water alone can have direct consequences for infant and child survival. “The two most significant causes of infant and child mortality in Timor-Leste—lower respiratory infection and diarrhoeal disease—are directly related to a lack of clean water, and poor sanitation and hygiene,” according to the Pacific Adaptation Strategy Assistance Program.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.10.30 AM

Unpredictable rains pose further risks to farmers nationwide. “A few years ago,” Araújo said, “many rice fields in the south coast of the country could still produce up to three times a year.” Now, harvests are down to once or twice a year, he said. With El Niño this year, overall rainfall could drop 17 percent. Agricultural officials are urging farmers to plan ahead, repair water tanks and pipes, mulch their fields, and refrain from planting before there is no doubt the monsoons have arrived in full force—otherwise, crops might need to be replanted.

Globally, analysts predict climate change will become an increasingly critical national security issue. In Timor-Leste, water scarcity is already a factor in domestic and community disputes. As the NGO Belun reports, 12 water-related conflicts occurred around Timor-Leste between September and October, the two driest months this year. That’s double the number of confrontations over water recorded during the same period in 2014. In one incident, a feud between two brothers over access to the local well resulted in in rock-slinging and a badly injured leg.

Such fights over water have historical precedence. Last month, I hiked with Guterres up a mountain in Baguia where, she said, many families camped during the worst years of conflict with Indonesian forces. (Indonesia invaded Timor Leste in 1975 and occupied the country until 1999; early on, civilians fled to the mountains in droves.) Many Timorese people died from Indonesian bombs and bullets, she said, but many others died of hunger and thirst. And occasionally, in the worst of times, 1975-1979, people fought to the death over access to the local spring. It’s better now, she said. All she has to do is rise in time to join the other women waiting in line each morning. But if she doesn’t get up and go, she said, “then we don’t have water.”

Karen Coates is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her reporting in Timor-Leste was supported by an International Reporting Project (IRP) Health and Development Fellowship.