Current Forecast: Changing Climate Increases the Social and Economic Burden
Warming temperatures and rising sea levels endanger every facet of life in Timor-Leste. For a newly-independent country still recovering from conflict and trying to overcome socioeconomic and institutional weaknesses, climate change adds a threatening layer to an already shaky foundation.
But the country is committed to harnessing the spirit of resilience that has been engrained over centuries. Today, Timor-Leste has actively implemented measures to protect the nation’s critical agricultural processes, and has adapted its economic practices to meet shifting needs due a changing climate.
The country, in brief. Surrounded by the islands of Indonesia, Timor-Leste is comprised of the eastern half of the island of Timor and three nearby islands. The country’s land mass captures nearly 15,000 square kilometres across 700 kilometres of coastline. The mountainous island has 8.2 percent arable land, and steep slopes leave much of the country vulnerable to soil erosion and landslides when heavy rainfall occurs. Timor-Leste is recognized as one of the 10 most vulnerable countries to the impact of climate change.
More extreme weather conditions jeopardize the country’s subsistence economy, but new practices, like conservation agriculture, are changing the island nation’s economic outlook. Hotter dry seasons, shorter and less predictable wet seasons, and extreme rainfall patterns that lead to seawater intrusion threaten Timor-Leste’s agriculture. Approximately 85 percent of the country’s population relies on subsistence farming, which faces routine devastation due to flooding or drought events. Conservation agriculture encourages farmers to limit soil disturbance, preserving the soil, moisture and other organic materials to help boost and protect crop production against the effects of climate change.
Other sustainable practices are on deck. Since independence in 2002, Timor-Leste remains one of the most oil dependent economies in the world. Offshore oil and gas provide steady revenue for the government, which has sought to diversify its economy and foster the spirit of adaptation among its people. Timor-Leste has turned to agriculture to foster stable, and inclusive economic growth that focuses on sustainable practices.
Wetter Wet Seasons and Hotter Hot Seasons
In the last decade, Timor-Leste has faced the wrath of El Niño and La Niña, the complementary climate phenomena that influence temperatures, rainfall and extreme weather across the Pacific Ocean. While El Niño brings unusually warm ocean temperatures, La Niña is characterized by cooler-than-average sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.
In 2010, La Niña unleashed an unrelenting rainy season onto the country, destroying more than 200 homes affecting more than 14,000 families in Timor-Leste’s southern region. Farmers typically enjoy two planting seasons from late November through March and April through June, but unpredictable flooding destroyed the July harvest and contributed to an estimated 7 percent decline in crop yields.
Beginning in 2015, Timor-Leste has faced severe drought brought on by El Niño. Along with other nations in the region, Timor-Leste has experienced erratic and insufficient rainfall, diminishing any hope of adequate crop yields. Approximately one third of Timor-Leste’s total population, roughly 350,000 people, have been affected by the prolonged drought, which was expected to escalate the food-security crisis at the start of the dry season in July 2017. The continued trend of poor harvest yields mean the population will continue to rely on livestock for food, and lack of diet diversity and food intake reductions could escalate health problems throughout the country.
Climate Adaptation: Protecting the Farmland
The landscape of Timor-Leste has degraded as the result of both climate change and human activity. Erosion brought on by uncontrolled clearance of native plants, flooding, and landslides has been exacerbated by broad deforestation across the country. It is estimated that 80 percent of the country’s forests were destroyed between 1975 and 1999.
Community-based reforestation and environmental-education programs have helped the people of Timor-Leste adapt to the changing climate and protect farmland for future growth. WithOneSeed is one such program, committed to addressing environmental degradation through community reforestation, build village-based economies, educate communities about the importance of climate adaptation and mitigation, and build regional partnerships to collaborate on climate change. WithOneSeed has established local plant nurseries to grow seedlings, and local farmers are paid to reforest their land.
Additional programs encourage subsistence farmers to grow cover crops like legumes and other beans as well as rotate crops each season and each year. Conservation agriculture has boosted crop yields for Timorese farmers while simultaneously conserving soil and build resilience to climate change.
Timor-Leste is a member of the Alliance of Small Island States as well as one of 43 members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. The country signed the Paris Climate Accord on 22 April 2016.