Tucked away in the rural hills of Timor-Leste, a one and a half hour drive from the district capital town of Lospalos along a very bumpy road, are a cluster of four farming villages – Dauleturo, Quedeluro, Oirata and Codo with a population of about 1400.
Living through drought
These villages have not had any reliable water infrastructure for about forty years. Old crumbled remnants of an Indonesian gravity fed water system remain, through which, a trickle of water still makes its way to one of the four villages from a slowly disappearing water spring. In more recent years, some have attempted reaching water with boreholes with no success.
The situation became critical when Timor-Leste was hit by one of the worst El Niño weather events on record in 2015/16 leading to water and food shortages across the country. During the initial assessment phase of our El Nino response programme, we were notified of these villages whose already minimal water resources were drying up.
Community members, typically women and children - especially girls - were walking six kilometre round trips to water springs in neighbouring villages to fetch whatever water they could carry with their hands. This instantly registered as a high priority area for us and we began technical assessments for a sustainable solution.
Restoring a precious resource
Given that most of the community members had lived their entire lives accepting that their area was water scarce and walking long distances to fetch water, they seemed sceptical that a solution was even possible.
Two weeks ago, the pump fed water supply system was first run, and the results were fantastic
Plan International facilitated discussions with the community and, despite their scepticism, a committee was assembled to investigate the possibility of ending their forty year drought. Plan International’s technical team then swung into action, designing the system in October 2016 and afterwards assisting the community in construction.
Two weeks ago, the pump fed water supply system was first run, and the results were fantastic. Women and men, girls and boys seeing water running from their new community tapstands, grabbing their buckets and jerry cans and running over to join the quickly growing group waiting their turn to fill up. Previously, 10 litres of water was worth up to three hours of effort. Now, the same amount of water was available in less than one minute from the various tapstands.
I have never seen people that excited by water. The rushed yet careful manner in which they filled their vessels, so as to not let any water go to waste, revealed just how precious water was in their community.
Building resilience and sustainability
The initial water-fetching frenzy soon subsided for a deeper realisation that this water was here to stay and that women and children will now have a few more hours each day to pursue other activities, such as studying, supporting their family or livelihood activities.
Through the chaos of running and filling water, I was approached by several community elders who took my hand and offered some very sincere words of gratitude. Those moments are as precious for me as they are to the villagers as they are testament to the power of hard work, mutual trust and respect, and, subsequent information sharing between the communities and the Plan International team.
Throughout the four months of construction and discussions between communities over shared resources, the communities facilitated by Plan International, developed an intimate understanding of how their system works and the social and technical components that need to be managed to ensure sustainability. Now the communities are preparing to band together to form a permanent water management committee to manage their precious resource into the future.
*Ali Saikal is the WASH Technical Coordinator for Plan International’s El Nino Response programme, volunteering through Engineers Without Borders Australia.