By Sophie Raynor
Walking hours per day for clean, safe water was a reality for hundreds of children in remote Timor-Leste not too long ago. But now, community-led efforts have seen water piped into the centres of some of the country’s most isolated hamlets, and its children accessing good health and secure education. Find out how UNICEF is supporting a tiny village in the country’s mountainous centre now.
MANU-MERA, TIMOR-LESTE – Down a rocky trail, snaking up through the craggy hills of Timor-Leste’s mountainous Ainaro municipality, hurtle two young boys and a makeshift wooden cart. One pushes the other, who sits with tucked-up feet and a wide grin as the cart bumps and jerks its way heavily down the hill to the boys’ rueful waiting father.
“What’s the cart used for?” comes the question.
“Carrying water,” shouts the boy in the cart.
“Carrying children,” screams the other, breaking into giggles.
The wooden cart, when filled with jerry cans, is just one way the community in tiny Manu-mera hamlet used to carry clean drinking water from the upland stream down to the handful of houses in its centre.
Home to fewer than 100 households and sitting isolated in the high mountainous pockets of central Timor-Leste, Manu-mera hamlet could be easily forgotten in the emerging country’s development – but for children walking hours per day for clean water, risking illness and missed school, the quest for clean water is urgent and ever-present.
Now, with support from Ono City, Japan and UNICEF, the community come together to bring clean water to its children.
Water for health, family and future
Farmers Bernardete da Conceição (52) and Alfredo da Silva (64) live next to one of the new, community-built water taps that dot Manu-mera, piping clean water to the hamlet from an upland spring. They have seven children – the eldest of which missed out on school to help in the family farm and at home, including washing clothes and collecting water every day.
“We used to walk two, two-and-a-half hours every morning to carry water,” says Bernardete. “But now, it’s just quickly.”
The family has recently built a toilet at the back of their home, which is cleaned and flushed with fresh, clean water, carried easily from the tap. Bernardete remembers previously having to dig holes in the forest, where waste was just covered.
Their 12-year-old daughter, Aurora, is a diligent student in her final year at the local school. She says going to the spring to bathe and collect water every morning used to make her late to class.
“When we’re late, we can’t follow the class,” she says. “And if we ask what is happening, the teacher gets angry, and we are scared.”
“Students had to walk to collect water, then bathe, then return home to prepare breakfast, and they arrive at school late,” explains Tomas de Conceição Pereira, the Director of Manu-mera’s school, which serves 216 children aged between five and 12 years, most of whom had to walk to collect water before it was piped to the town from the spring. The school previously drew its own water from a well, which was often dirty, causing outbreaks of diarrhoea, fever and coughing in school.
Now, the school and local health clinic are served by a shared water tank, which connects to the school’s toilets and provides water for cleaning, washing dusty chalkboards, and even watering the school’s flowers.
“This water is extremely important for students and to connect with the whole community,” Tomas says, earnestly. “For many years we haven’t had it. This water ensures the children’s lives for the future.”
“It’s not the same as it was before,” says Florindo Pereira, a 42-year-old farmer, whose children attend the school. “We’re happy. We used to work long days in the field and not bathe after, because it was too far, but now it’s easy.”
Community-led solution is the only way
In the lively centre of Maubisse, a town just an hour’s drive away from Manu-mera, stickers adorn bright green thick plaster walls of restaurants and guest houses. “The home is complete with a toilet,” chirpy writing reads; part of an outreach campaign designed to encourage households to stop the dangerous but traditional practise of open defecation, and to install toilets with running water in their homes.
With UNICEF’s support, Ministry of Health-led outreach activities in Ainaro municipality have seen nearly all of the municipality’s villages declared open defecation-free – just three remain before the entire municipality, of approximately 60,000 people, is free of the practise. These activities are part of the government’s community-led total sanitation initiative, which encourages communities to initiate and manage their own water and sanitation programmes.
The municipality has committed to the national government’s ambitious goal of country-wide open defecation eradication by 2020. Clean, safe water piped from springs into hamlets like Manu-mera is a crucial part of this.
The Manu-mera hamlet built taps by engaging the community – the community ensures taps are well-maintained and highly valued. Regular monitoring by the local Water Committee members ensures communities remain committed to the initiative.
Of course, the boys at the top of the hill with their new cart don’t care much for this. All they know is a new toy and hours of walking saved each day. But they’re the children who will grow up with the clean water their parents were denied, and the opportunities hygiene, health and education unlock.
As the weak evening sunlight begins to fade, they drag the cart back up the hill for one more turn.