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Timor Leste

Jesuits end decades of water shortages in Timor-Leste

Clean water projects in remote areas are transforming the lives of local villagers

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Jesuits end decades of water shortages in Timor-Leste

Workers repaint a water tower in Kasait. (Photo by Michael Coyne)

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For decades, people from Urmera in Timor-Leste's Liquica district used to wake early each morning and then walk four kilometers up a hill to collect water and walk back down again.

They had to compete with hundreds of other villagers to reach two old wells sunk during the Indonesian occupation. More often than not when they got there they had to wait in a long queue before they could draw their water.

Domingos da Silva was one of them. The 67-year-old used to wake up at 5 a.m. and push a cart filled with water containers up the hill and do the same in the afternoon.

That all ended in October 2016 thanks to a project initiated by the Jesuit Social Service (JSS) which brought clean water literally to his door step.

About 40 families in Da Silva's village have benefited from this project.

"We waited for this for so long. It was a huge weight off our shoulders. Now we don't have to worry about water for cooking, drinking, washing or our crops," Da Silva says.

"Now I have time and energy for other important things, such as how to get more money for my family," he says.

Money is tight as he has to pay for his son's education at St. Ignatius of Loyola college in Kasait, about 15 kilometers west of Dili.

Now each day Da Silva sells firewood. He also sells corn and other vegetables, sometimes in the local market, sometimes from door to door.

For Izelda de Espiritu Santo and her family the water project was also a life changer. 

"The day the water supply was turned on in the village was one of the happiest moments of my long life," said Santo.

She said she and her 12 children used to take it in turns to fetch water.

"Water is no longer a problem. But what we worry more about now is [how to meet] daily needs," she said.

They have crops but prolonged drought means her family have been unable to rely on farming to provide a regular income, which she says is why her elderly husband still has to work for a poultry company in Dili.

Marselinus Oki, an engineer employed by the Jesuits for the water project, said the people cannot thank the Jesuits enough for what they say is a major milestone in their lives. The excitement was so great almost every phase of the project was celebrated, he said.

"When we were about to drill the wells the people gathered to pray for success. When the water came, they were so overjoyed, thanking God for giving them water at long last," he said.


Big problem

Lack of water remains a huge problem in Timor-Leste, particularly in rural areas.

It often results in poor sanitation. With little water proper toilets are almost non-existent meaning open defecation is widespread. During the rainy season, bacteria from human and animal feces are spread leading to many children suffering from diarrhea and other diseases caused by dirty rainwater.

According to a 2015 census, more than 830,000 of Timor-Leste's 1.1 million people live in rural areas.

About 78 percent of people living in urban areas have access to clean water, but only 64 percent of people do in rural areas, according to Rui de Sousa, director of Timor-Leste National Water and Sanitation Services.

"The government's goal is that by 2030 all communities will have access to clean water," De Sousa told ucanews.com.

Currently, the government only constructs water sources for urban communities. But for rural areas it looks to global partners such as Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Asian Development Bank, Australia Fund, NGOs, and church groups for help.

Father Erick John Gerilla, JSS's executive director in Timor-Leste said providing clean water is one of the organization's priorities.

In the past four years ten water towers have been built, including four for schools in Dili and Liquica district, the Filipino priest said.

According to Father Gerilla the Jesuit clean water project has directly helped about 2,300 people or 414 families, adding that the number could be doubled if you count other people using the same water sources on a sporadic basis.

Five new projects are targeted for this year, and another five in 2019. Each one costs $15,000-18,000, including professional fees and labor costs.

The money largely comes from donors both from home and abroad Father Gerilla said.

"With more water towers, we can help a larger number of people," he said.



Building towers, wells, or other features can take only a matter of days. But the biggest challenge is changing people's attitudes, the priest said.

"They are used to living independently as part of a clan or family system. So, when it comes to encouraging them to commit to a community, it takes months of coaxing before they come around," Father Gerilla said.

People have used the water so far for basic needs such as drinking, cooking, bathing, watering plants and for cattle.

"We are now encouraging people to embark on the next level, such building toilets and on how to use the water to make them more self-sufficient," he said.

According to the priest, another problem is that many people make a living selling firewood, which means they cut trees, which help retain water.

"We have talked to them about the effects on wells if they continue to cut trees. We tell them that water is a natural resource and one day it will dry up if tree cutting continues," he said.

"We are looking at alternatives to firewood to generate income," he added.

In the meantime, people have been asked to plant trees near water pumps to help maintain water sources and protect watersheds.

JSS will help by providing seedlings and saplings, Father Gerilla said.

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