Climate Overview: Timor Leste (East Timor)

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 30th Mar 2011

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Note: This article was written in 2008 as part of project to support Sida to integrate climate change into their country assistance programmes.

Current Climate and hazards

The main climatic hazards in Timor Leste are floods, landslides and tropical cyclones, with drought a hazard in the North of the country. Temperatures are high and vary little with seasons, with annual averages around 24 degrees Celsius at sea-level, which decline as altitude rises in the mountain range which runs down the centre of the island. Precipitation increases from North to South, as the south benefits from rains from the SE monsoon as well as the NE Indonesian monsoon. El Niño events cause drought in Timor Leste, for example the 2007 El Niño contributed to a 30% reduction in cereal yields in the country. The official government website for Timor Leste provides further background.

Trends in current climate

Specific information on trends in climate and hazards for Timor Leste is scarce due to a complete lack of meteorological data and observations during the period of Indonesian rule from 1975-2000 Experience from farmers suggests that there is increasing variability of climate and traditional planting cycles no longer fit with current seasons, and mountain communities report that temperatures have been rising . This fits the pattern for the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, where data show that the timing of the rainy season has changed, and temperatures have risen by 0.3C since 1990. There is some indication that the south of the Indonesian archipelago has experienced a drying trend, however it is unclear whether this has occured in Timor Leste.

Projections of climate change

Projections for temperature increases to 2100 are in line with the global average, with a range of 1.5-3.7°C by 2100, and a mean increase across models of 2.5°C. Changes in precipitation are less clear, in particular because of uncertainty over future changes in the Australian monsoon and El Niño, and their effect on regional precipitation. In general, climate models show increased rainfall intensity in the wet season, but a more prolonged dry season .

Impacts of Climate Change

Again, little work has been done on the impacts of climate change specifically for Timor Leste but using studies for Indonesia, and the national circumstances of Timor Leste, several potential impacts can be identified. According to the World Food Programme, 20% of the population is food insecure, and an additional 24% are vulnerable to food insecurity. This is largely due to political unrest, poverty, poor quality soil and inefficient farming techniques, but increased climate variability and extreme events may make the situation worse and food insecure groups, including Internally Displaced People (IDPs) will be among the most vulnerable to any additional stresses from climate change . Any increase in intense precipitation will increase problems related to the erosion of topsoil on steep deforested mountain slopes, which leaves them unsuitable for growing crops and increases the risk of landslides.

Rising sea-level, projected to increase by 18-59cm by 2100, could threaten the capital city Dili with flooding, especially during storm surges. Warmer ocean temperatures may damage biologically diverse coral reefs and disrupt fishing patterns. An increase in El Niño activity or length of the dry season may cause more frequent droughts in the North of the country, where they already cause decreases in crop yield, although it is unclear how the situation with regards national water resources will change. Given the degraded state of water supply in Timor Leste, improving the water infrastructure, for example reducing leaks and strengthening the water management system would probably counteract any reduction in overall resources due to climate change. Warmer temperatures are likely to increase the incidence of vector-borne diseases such as Malaria and Dengue Fever.

Adaptation and Mitigation

Mitigation

Emissions of carbon dioxide in Timor Leste are 0.2tonnes/capita and 0.1kg/$GDP, both of which are negligible when compared to the 2005 world averages of 4.22 tonnes/capita and 0.75kg/$GDP Under any proposed international agreement to agree a global per capita emissions target, such as the 2 tonnes/capita suggested by Sir Nicholas Stern and the London School of Economics, Timor Leste would be allowed to significantly increase its carbon dioxide emissions . A pilot project by the UN department of economic and social affairs (UNDESA) in Aleiu district showed that with the right support solar lanterns are a viable source of electricity for rural communities, highlighting the opportunity for the spread of low carbon technologies which support rural development.

Timor Leste remains heavily forested, however unsustainable agricultural practices such as 'slash and burn' agriculture, as well as destruction of forests by Indonesian troops, has seen forest cover in Timor Leste decline from 65% in 1990 to 54% in 2004, with annual deforestation estimated at 1.2%. Land tenure rights for forests are unclear; nominally they are owned by the state but there is little enforcement and the perception of forests as an abundant, common resource supports their conversion to farmland . Forests provide key ecosystem services, including regulating climate, reducing flood risk by slowing run-off and maintaining habitat and biodiversity. The protection of these services can reduce the impacts of climate change, increase the ability of communities to adapt to climate change, and support rural livelihood activities thus aiding poverty alleviation efforts. The sustainable management of forest resources will be an important issue in Timor Leste's continued economic and social development, and it is positive to note the creation in 2007 of Timor Leste's first national park to protect 123,000 hectares of biologically rich forest and marine areas. Potential exists for projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in Timor Leste which would support the introduction of low-carbon technologies with benefits for national dvelopment, although capacity would need to be built to attract and implement these projects. Although at an early stage, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) proposal currently being discussed in international climate negotiations, whereby developing countries would receive compensation for preventing deforestation, also has great potential to contribute to sustainable forest management in Timor Leste.

Adaptation

Whilst there will be some specific adaptation measures that should be taken in Timor Leste, at present the greatest factors in increasing ability to adapt climate change will be continued economic and social development, including infrastructure, institutional capacity, the economy, and poverty reduction efforts. Poverty is the main driver of environmental degradation in Timor Leste and also a major contributing factor to vulnerability to climate change, and must be addressed in order to both improve livelihoods, increase resilience to climate change and protect the island's biodiversity .

Reforestation of steep slopes will stabilise the slope and topsoil, as would the spread of various indigenous soil conservation methods which are practiced in some upland areas. The improvement of agricultural knowledge and techniques, for example through watershed management, training agricultural extension officers, or improved seed varieties is not a direct adaptation to climate change, but improving food security will greatly improve the resilience of communities reliant on subsistence agriculture to adapt to climate change. Similarly, increasing the number of households with access to safe water and sanitation, and projects on community water management will also increase resilience to the impacts of climate change .

The Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre is developing a system for the delivery and interpretation of climate information to mitigate disasters through training in the use of seasonal forecasts and responses to climatic hazards, communication of climate risks to farmers, and demonstration of the advantages of climate forecast information to reduce the impact of hydro-meteorological hazards . Providing this information will be valuable in reducing the vulnerability of farmers to climatic variability and extremes, such as the droughts of 1997-98 and 2006-7.

Capacity and Policies: Adaptation and Mitigation

After the destruction of up to 70% of its infrastructure in the violence in 1999, Timor Leste is working hard to rebuild its infrastructure and strengthen government and civil institutions. Whilst great strides have been made, the government has been hampered by further violence in 2006 which led to 100,000 IDPs (10% of the population), and an assassination attempt on the president in February 2008 . Government revenues from petroleum products are rising, and financially Timor Leste is in a good position considering its situation, however underdeveloped management structures and a lack of trained staff make it difficult for ministries to execute the initiatives proposed in the budget and this is the major limitation to economic and social development at present

Understandably, given its pressing economic and security concerns, climate change is not seen as a priority in Timor Leste, and is not mentioned on the government website. However, Timor Leste is a member of the UNFCCC, signed the Kyoto protocol in March 2008 and has begun the initial process of self-assessment which will lead to the production of an Initial National Communication on Climate Change . The Ministry of Development and Environment and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries are the relevant government departments to address climate change . An event aimed at raising awareness was held by the UNDP to mark World Environment Day 2008, and included tree planting, football matches and a seminar on climate change at the National University, however general awareness remains low. Potential exists for Timor Leste to address climate change as part of its development strategy by introducing low carbon technologies throughout its infrastructure, however, this will require a great deal of international support, capacity building and cooperation . A lack of monitoring and data for environmental issues, related to the Indonesian occupation and the destruction of infrastructure in 1999 hinders environmental protection, and environmental and meteorological monitoring and observation systems will need to be established .

IDPs comprise 10% of the population of Timor Leste, and complicate government policies and efforts at building capacity. Community violence must be addressed before the IDPs will feel safe to return home; until then they remain very vulnerable and it will be difficult to introduce successful poverty reduction measures or build adaptive capacity for this group. Trust in the government and the security situation must be built before the government can effectively govern Timor Leste and support the country's economic and social development whilst increasing its resilience to climate change and ensuring environmental protection.

 

References

  • UNDP 2008a Addressing the impacts of climate change in Timor Leste. Timor Leste News Quarterly 11.
  • WFP 2007 Executive Brief on Timor Leste Emergency Food Security Assessment.
  • World Bank 2007 Economic and Social Development Brief. Prepared by World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
  • World Bank 2008b East Asia Update 2008.