Flak-jacketed police and bodyguards spilled out of the presidential convoy and secured the riverfront. Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta then casually walked to the banks of the Raumoko River and watched as men piled rocks into wire cages. Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was inspecting one of the development projects that Concern is carrying out with local partner groups in Luro, a sub-district of the Lautem region in the eastern tip of Timor Leste. In the dusty village of Daudere, where Ramos Horta visited last week, the men are working to tame the Raumoko in a project that could save lives in this disaster-prone nation.
Heavy rains due
It's dry now, but the annual rains are due soon. The parched riverbed will change into a raging torrent in minutes. In 2001, a flash flood washed away some 30 homes in Daudere, displacing hundreds of residents. Lives could have easily been lost. The community is still recovering and is working with local NGO, Fraterna, and Concern to ensure they are prepared in case the same happens again. The residents are working to divert the river away from the village and to stabilise the banks using wire cages of rocks. The community, with Concern's support, also decided to build an evacuation centre on the top of a nearby hill and has held planning sessions preparing for natural disasters and preventing the loss of lives, homes, livestock and other assets.
Ramos-Horta listened as Augusto Mirando, Concern's field coordinator for disaster risk reduction, explained the project. Concern's efforts in places like Daudere are vital, the president said. "Flood control is very important. Timorese people are all very worried about floods and how they'll be affected. They've been asking me for urgent help to protect their fields and housing," Ramos-Horta said. "The nature of our rivers is that they change course and the impact can be devastating."
Susceptible to disaster
Timor Leste gets battered regularly by disasters, including floods, landslides, drought, tropical storms, earthquakes, pest infestations and epidemics. With funding from the European Commission and Irish Aid, Concern is working with local communities to respond effectively to such damaging events and, where possible, to prevent them. The programmes include vulnerability mapping, hazard assessments, erosion control, irrigation efforts and the development of action plans.
"It's very significant to the community because many houses have been destroyed here," said Leonard Sampio, chairman of the local Disaster Management Committee. "It'll happen again. Daudere sits in a flood plain and so it'll happen again. It's just a matter of when."
But the river diversion and bank stabilisation will help, and the evacuation centre provides a good safety net for the village, Sampio said. "The people are trained to move there if there's a flood."
Concern is also working with community groups to increase agricultural production and expand the range of foods that farmers produce through a model farming project and a tree nursery in Daudere. These projects are helping communities move towards more secure food production and reduce the community's vulnerability to a host of risks.