Subject: EAST TIMOR: Seasonal Changes Cause for Alarm

EAST TIMOR: Seasonal Changes Cause for Alarm

By Matt Crook

DILI, Oct 20 (IPS) - If you order a beer, sit back and relax at one of the expat bars dotted along the coastal Pantai Kelapa road in this capital, you cannot help but notice the view: the stony beach, the swimming children and the grounded fishing boats. But that view is morphing ­ a visible sign of how climate change could be affecting East Timor.

"Today we can assert that the shorelines have been changing. I live in Dili; I know very well where the line was before... That’s one of the physical effects we can observe from climate change," said Demetrio de Carvalho from Haburas, an environmental civil society organisation in this South-East Asian country of about one million population.

Not much is known about how climate change has affected East Timor ­ data is limited and there are few statistics left over from the Indonesian occupation between 1975 and 1999 ­ but some say a rising sea level could lead to increased shoreline erosion in the future.

But that is just one of the impacts people in East Timor are feeling as a result of climate change.

Joana de Mesquita Lima, programme officer for the United Nations Development Programme’s Poverty Reduction and Environment Unit, said, "There are already a number of indicators: some farmers have had failed crops because of changes in weather patterns, there is more flash flooding, some natural water springs have reportedly dried up and there are water shortages."

While a lot remains unknown, it is hoped that a study being launched by the government and partners will shed more light on the issue in the course of the coming year.

"We will try to see how the communities are being affected to understand the impact of climate change," said Lima. "Then an action plan for adaptation to climate change will be developed so East Timor can prioritize key adaptation interventions and then be able to access other international funding. It’s all about collecting data at this stage."

The government is also preparing to represent East Timor at December’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol will be discussed.

The biggest problem East Timor faces is how the effects of climate change are contributing to food insecurity. About 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and about three-quarters of all East Timorese are in rural areas, most of them reliant on subsistence farming to survive.

The seasons are unpredictable now, which spells bad news for farmers, said Mario Ximenes, head of the National Directorate for International Environmental Affairs.

The temperature is rising and it is likely that there will be less rainfall in the wet season and more in the dry season, which will wreak havoc on planting and harvesting cycles, he said.

"According to a study done [by the University of Melbourne], the temperature in East Timor will rise between 0.88 and 3.68ºC by 2070," he said. The average annual temperature in East Timor ranges from 15ºC in mountainous areas to 28ºC in sites closer to sea level. A significant increase in temperature will disrupt rain patterns.

"In the agricultural sector, farmers say they have already been affected by climate change, primarily by the rainfall," he added.

Drought in 2001-2002 and a late rainy season between 2002 and 2003 led to a whopping 34 percent decline that year in the production of maize, the country’s most abundant food crop.

Problems like these have been acknowledged by top government brass. Foreign minister Zacarias Albano da Costa last month said that East Timor is "affected by changing weather patterns and is following the climate change debate.

"At the national level, we are naturally concerned with preservation of our environment and place importance in reforestation and protection of the environment," he added.

Speaking at September’s United Nations high-level meeting on climate change in New York, President Jose Ramos-Horta said that East Timor faced a "severe threat" from climate change.

"Our weather is becoming increasingly strange and unpredictable. There seem to be more downpours, landslides and record floods than in living memory. Experience from our farmers suggests that there is increasing variability of climate and traditional practices and planting cycles no longer fit with the changing weather patterns."

The president cited climate change as a "critical development challenge" that is impacting food security and health in East Timor.

"Rivers are filling up with silt washed down from higher ground as the hillsides erode, causing water to breach the banks," he added. "Landslides destroy roads in the wet season, causing havoc for rural residents."

Carbon dioxide emissions in East Timor work out to 0.2 tonnes per capita, well below the global average of 4.22 tonnes, but the country is still doing its part to respond to climate change, ratifying international conventions such as the Kyoto Protocol and adopting a National Adaptation Programme of Action to get to the bottom of how climate change is affecting the country.

One problem in East Timor is that its location makes it susceptible to the effects of El Niño-related weather anomalies. Drought is a particular worry during an El Niño ­ an environmental phenomenon characterised by extreme climatic conditions ­ the most recent of which ended in 2007, leading to a 30 percent reduction in cereal yields.

"In the last 10 years we have already experienced two El Niño cycles. We have a lot of rain during wet season, sometimes very short, but very heavy, and this causes damage to infrastructure like bridges and people’s houses," said de Carvalho from Haburas.

East Timor’s fragile environment is made even more so as widespread poverty is linked to deforestation. Land clearing is a common farming practise and trees are being cut down en masse for use as fuelwood.

Between 1990 and 2005, 17.4 percent of the country’s forest was destroyed. This decrease makes East Timor all the more susceptible to the effects of climate change.

The challenge now comes from limited human resources and limited public awareness of climate change, plus the government already has its plate full rebuilding the country in the wake of independence in 2002.

"Unfortunately climate change is not a priority now. It should be a priority, but the main barrier is that we have to put the top priorities as infrastructure, education and health. Everybody knows that these are the top priorities, but small islands are the ones most affected by climate change," said Abilio Fonseca, national advisor for the National Directorate for International Environment Affairs.

De Carvalho thinks the government is going in the right direction, but it just needs a little help from time to time.

"From the political perspective, I have observed we are moving forward. We have already ratified climate change conventions and also ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Our state actors have strong political will related to environmental management," he said. "The problem is that we just don’t implement all those conventions fully yet."

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