Subject: Dili-gence: The acid spill & Travel Advisories

Random observations from an English speaking foreigner in Dili, Timor-Leste


The acid spill

Apart from the election, the biggest event lately has been the acid spill at Dili port. It has taken a few days to piece the bits together but I think it goes like this.

A container was dumped at the port (last weekend ?) containing over 20,000 litres of acid which was leaking. This resulted in closure of the port area (for about 3 days) to the general public and evacuation of surrounding areas including guests at Hotel Timor and the Kiwi soldiers from their base next door. The IDP camp between Hotel Timor and the port was asked to evacuate but they refused , claiming it was a ploy to get them out.

At one point, the nature of the acid was not certain so a conservative approach was taken. Experts from Australia were called in and confirmed it was HCl (hydrochloric acid) so the no-go zone was reduced after a couple of days.

Most of the acid leaked into the sea where it would be rendered harmless. Sea water contains salts, the main one being NaCl (ie sodium chloride) and anyone who has done school chemistry should know that HCl plus NaOH (ie sodium hydroxide) produces salt (NaCl) plus water (H2O). There are more than enough free hydroxide ions to allow the HCl to break-down. Other chemicals may not have been so friendly.

At some point, someone announced that one should not eat fish for a few days. This probably explains why a couple of guys I know in the construction industry said their workers refused to eat any fish back at their canteen. The eating recommendation was quickly reversed but too late for some.

It turned out the acid was on its way from Indonesia to Australia but when a leak was discovered, it was off-loaded in Dili. It highlights the fact that the port probably had no protocols for dealing with this sort of problem, the ship did not know how to handle it and the acid was probably stored in an unsafe manner in the container and possibly not identified correctly.

I believe the ISF (ie OZ component of the international security force) managed the clean-up.

Feel free to correct me if I got anything wrong here.



Travel advisories and what it means now


I know I risk annoying someone for touching this one but yesterday morning, Radio OZ chose to broadcast much of the content of a recently released Timor-Leste travel advisory by the OZ government.

Unless you listened very carefully, you may have thought things had descended into a security nightmare again. But the reality is slightly different. Yes, the travel advisory was changed on Tuesday but only to add a section warning against movement in the seaport area following a major acid spill. Otherwise, the general flavour of the advisory has not changed for months. (Note that if you register on the advisory website <> you will get an email reminder if the advisory changes, as I did on Tuesday.)

That flavour is based on the January/February situation where there were nightly rock fights in specific parts of town and things were generally not very nice. Things calmed down in early March but the advisory has not fundamentally changed. It has not changed as there has been an expectation that something will kick off the trouble again - like an election. And here we have an election process - campaigning, voting, announcement of results - which will go on until July.

For those who are not students of the travel advisory (, it basically advises Australians to leave and advises those staying to avoid the western districts and avoid congregating in bars, restaurants and places frequented by foreigners etc. etc.

I suppose one contentious point is the system of defining warning levels. TL is at "level 5 which is the highest level but most people can't quite believe that you can equate TL with Iraq or Afghanistan. And if it is level 5 now, then May last year should be "level 9 , shouldn't it ?

Most expats who have been here for a while generally know where not to go and when not to go. They tend to know what to avoid and will generally know which direction is the way to safety if something goes wrong.

In general, I wouldn't recommend a first-time visitor coming here unless they join up with a group (ie employer-related) who will provide some accompaniment and guidance. It takes time to become accustomed to the security environment and to get the "feel" when things are wrong.

However, I move about freely right now and feel no anxiety about moving about Dili, although I would avoid places like Fatuhada, Kampung Alor, Bairo Pite and the Delta areas in Comorro. Very few expats have a need to hang around these areas. At the end of the day, it is all about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are hundreds of UN police roaming about the place these days and I am confident if any escalation of problems occurs, it will be quickly fed into the security notification system which now seems well entrenched.

If I feel the need to don the cast-iron underwear (with high-tech chafe-free absorbent gusset), you will hear about it here.

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