Understanding Critical Climate Change Impacts in Timor Leste


Understanding Critical Climate Change Impacts in Timor Leste

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 By Abilio Fonseca, Karen Edyvane, Romy Greiner, Bronwyn Myers & Rohan Fisher


Abilio Fonseca submitting his PhD thesis, with supervisor, Karen Edyvane.


On the sheltered northern coast of Timor Leste lies the small coastal hamlet of Beacou (population 507).  Beacou is typical of subsistence communities in Timor Leste. Situated on a narrow coastal margin against a backdrop of steep mountains with poor soils, the livelihoods, well-being and survival of its people depends on (and is constrained by) the state of their very limited agricultural lands and adjacent coastal and marine resources.  In Beacou —like many rural areas in Timor Leste — people literally live off the land and sea: growing food crops, raising livestock, fishing and reef gleaning and harvesting fuel wood, with little or no cash income.

The latest results from PhD research undertaken by Abilio Fonseca, a Timorese national with Charles Darwin University, are showing just how challenging ‘subsistence living’ has become for many coastal communities in Timor Leste.  And in particular, the emerging and devastating impacts of climate change on life’s basic essentials: water, food, income, human well-being and infrastructure (houses, roads, schools etc).

Abilio looked at 4 ‘vulnerable’, coastal villages in his research – Beacou and Sau (on the north coast) and Vailana and Suai-Loro (on the southern coast) - documenting the biophysical and socio-economic impacts of climate change on local communities, and importantly, exploring local options for mitigation and adaptation.  His PhD thesis was recently examined and approved, pending revisions – and significantly, is the first PhD on climate change undertaken by a Timorese national.

Flood risk map of Timor Leste and location of study sites (villages).

Beacou, like many communities along Timor Leste’s northern coast, is particularly prone to droughts and flooding.  With highly variable rainfall (average annual total ~938mm, monthly averages ~16-161mm), and a short wet season (>100mm per month) of just 4 months, Beacou suffers from annual droughts of 3-4 months and several flash floods each wet season.

Only a relatively low proportion of Beacou’s population (8%) live in vulnerable, low-lying coastal areas (0-≤5 m), but nevertheless the community faces major impacts from climate change.  In surveys of the population, half of all households reported climate impacts on their livelihoods (agricultural crops ~52%, livestock ~32%, and fishing ~10%), primarily from droughts, flooding and coastal inundation. 

As with many rural areas in Timor Leste, Beacou’s population is also highly dependent on natural resources as their sole source of food (57% of the population).  As such, climate impacts on food security are becoming a critical and life-threatening issue.  In Beacou, 60% of households experienced food shortages of 1-4 months, every year.  Similarly, climate impacts on water security are severe. Only 28% of households in Beacou could access potable water (community wells, mostly in low-lying areas); and all of these reported impacts on water quality/quantity. Climate events are also having major impacts on psychological well-being: 35% of households reported climate-related fear and impacts on family cohesion (33%). 

On the low-lying southern coast of Timor Leste, other coastal hamlets are experiencing similar (if not worse) local impacts from climate change.  In sharp contrast to the drier northern coast, coastal populations on the south coast of Timor Leste like Suai-Loro are subject to variable and intense high rainfall events (average annual total ~1384mm, monthly averages ~20-216mm) and a wet season lasting up to 9 months.  In the hamlet of Suai-Loro (population-900) two thirds of the population lives in vulnerable, low-lying areas (0-5m above sea level). Here, 95% of households reported annual food shortages (ranging from 1-7 months) with 20% of households reporting theft of food.  Many low-lying coastal hamlets on the south coast like Suai-Loro are adjacent to major river systems.  So communities will continue to face major climate impacts from both riverine flooding and storm surge-related coastal inundation.   

Importantly, Abilio’s research is also demonstrating how local communities (in collaboration with government agencies) are ready to engage and participate in climate action, and explore options for mitigation and adaptation.  Through participatory, community-based coastal vulnerability assessments (CVAs) and participatory local adaptation planning, communities and district agencies are able to understand and assess the local impacts of climate change.  They can also use these participatory tools to collaboratively generate local adaptation and mitigation options, actions and measures.

Abilio’s research clearly demonstrates the benefits and applicability of rapid, ‘bottom up’ participatory tools like CVAs and local adaptation planning.  While this is probably the case anywhere, such tools are particularly useful in developing countries where effective national institutional climate change frameworks are often lacking.  Unfortunately, Timor Leste is not alone in experiencing the impacts of climate change on vulnerable subsistence communities – either in the Asia-Pacific region or globally.

Participatory mapping of climate impacts (droughts, flooding, inundation, coastal erosion) on community resources (Beacou).

Seasonal calendar of local climate and food security and availability – prepared by the community of Beacou.

Participatory, community workshops, like coastal vulnerability assessments (CVA’s) and local adaptation planning – allow local communities (and district agencies) to understand the local impacts of climate change, and importantly, explore options for mitigation and adaptation.

Regular wet season flooding, and coastal inundation in Beacou results in major impacts on coastal infrastructure (such as roads, houses, graveyards) and also, large-scale, annual outbreaks of malaria.