In 2015, The Government of Timor-Leste committed the post-conflict country to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while working closely with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) across all areas of development throughout the country. Timor-Leste is the youngest country in South East Asia since becoming independent from Indonesia in 2002. These initiatives include partnering with local and international universities and policymakers both locally and regionally while focusing on the pressing development needs of the people at the grassroots level. A grassroots approach to the SDGs encourages the people of Timor-Leste to access clean water while increasing the capacity of both state authorities and the local population to develop food secure tools across both urban and rural Timor-Leste.
A commitment by stakeholders to implement the SDGs (local, state and international shareholders) will enhance good governance through participation across all sectors of the country that ensures a sustainable future for the people of Timor-Leste after decades of illegal occupation by Indonesia. However, challenges to achieve the SDGs goals remain complex and arduous. These challenges include political, social and economic elements, and remain inconsistent in post-conflict Timor-Leste while good water practices normally underpin good health and the ability of the nation-state to be food secure.
Sustainable development has evolved since the release of the Brundtland Commission commissioned by the United Nations in 1987. The report underscores sustainable development should consider future generations while ensuring natural resources are distributed equitably during the life span of current generations such as food and freshwater. The above definition has evolved over time but remains the accepted definition of sustainability around the world. The three pillars of sustainability remain environmental, social and economic components that underpin sustainable development in both developing and developed nations and form the SDGs framework in 2020.
The 17 goals include goal 6 (water and sanitation) and goal 15 (life on the land) which highlights the need for freshwater to drink and access to sanitation that encompasses the well-being of the community which incorporates human rights and access to water for economic development through energy and other new sectors. The aims of the goals are to ensure natural water streams are maintained and the ecology of rivers and creeks are preserved to enable agriculture and food production. Investment in mitigating climate change while innovating new sectors to capture water to maintain a civil society, creating new employment opportunities remains critical to the future development of Timor-Leste.
The SDGs underscore the immense challenges that exist for Timor-Leste in the 21st century and indicates much development and social work needs to be achieved between now and 2030. The commitment and engagement by the former Prime Minister Araújo in the context of the SDGs and his support of the UNDP’s work in Timor-Leste have been commendable. The challenges remain, but the country can maintain its strong vision for peace, stability, justice and transparency: addressing the immense challenges that confront its people and government in the coming decades, and this includes water and food security.
These goals cannot be achieved without good governance, and this includes water governance from the grassroots level with a bottom-up approach while empowering females. Historically speaking, vague approaches to development including lack lustre water and sanitation provisions because of the the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) cannot be repeated in Timor-Leste. Adopted strategies that aligned states with the same ‘one glove fits all’ perspective while expecting the same results and outcomes is an ambitious notion to achieve without a framework for accountable, transparent participation, particularly in a post-conflict environment.
Ensuring accountability from all sections of the community with monitoring systems produce accurate results by recognising critical cross-cutting themes such as economy, capacity development and gender. These components go hand in hand with all 17 SDGs while enhancing new sectors across the country. The process remains incremental and challenging in Timor-Leste because starting from the beginning is difficult for one of the poorest nations in South East Asia and around the world. This includes social and economic development such as education and health, albeit both are improving across Timor-Leste.
Transiting from a post-conflict state to a regular functioning state can take up to 30 years on average. In saying that, this indicates Timor-Leste has approximately 15 years to make such progress required to become a regular functioning state at a level of accepted global indicators. Including in this timeline are significant advances in recognising the social and economic development processes while meeting the objective of the SDGs, particularly in relation to water and food security.
Policymakers must first consider Timor-Leste’s difficult and complex road to ruin from its past colonisation by Portugal and illegal invasions from Indonesia which have been marred by internal and civil violence, destruction and difficult emerging 21st century challenges such as climate change, poverty and a lack of water and sanitation infrastructure. These challenges remain critical to uniquely contextualise the SDGs framed around Timor-Leste if they are going to succeed.
The people of Timor-Leste have made significant and rapid gains in its independence since 2002. Adding to this, its violent and difficult past has made the people of Timor-Leste resilient in the face of foreign invasion and occupation from both European and Asian states, such as Portugal and Indonesia. Understanding the journey of Timor-Leste to the present day, we must consider and reflect on the past social, historical and cultural points that underpin a very proud people in order to achieve water and food security framed around the SDGs.
There are just under 1-billion people who are hungry in the world today, while Timor-Leste is placed at number nine on global rankings, sitting between Afghanistan in Central Asia, and Niger in Western Africa. Timor-Leste is the fourth hungriest state in Asia. And is underpinned by having the third-highest rate of stunted growth on planet earth. These facts are compounded by the so-called hunger season, which is from the months of November to February each year.
The hunger season is dictated by the beginning and end of the wet season when farmers have tended to consume and sell their produce to the local market, which is known as subsistence farming in Timor-Leste. Subsistence farming occurs while waiting for the wet season to begin, which enables local communities to grow their new crops but leaving a gap in the production and consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables outside of this period. Timor-Leste’s global hunger ranking remains serious, which posits the nation at approximately 34 in the world in 2020. There is a high rate of children with malnutrition under the age of 5 that comprises of stunted growth and other nutritional related problems, such as hunger.
Extreme weather events due to climate change have created serious droughts in Timor-Leste during 2016 that has impeded on the nation’s ability to produce food. Food security is further aggravated by the fact that there is no infrastructure to capture water and store it for such periods like droughts. Over half of the population of Timor-Leste are water and food insecure.
Water governance across Timor-Leste would benefit the agricultural sector such as local subsistence farming while creating long term solutions. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the population of Timor-Leste depends on subsistence farming for their food and income. These benefits would include resources such as irrigation pipes and access to water. Timor-Leste does not have the infrastructure to support large-scale agriculture, considering its second-largest export is coffee that is worth an estimated US$30 million a year. Its largest export (non-agricultural) is oil and gas.
Notwithstanding, agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater on the planet, hence the need for strong consolidated water governance amongst all stakeholders remains critical. A broader policy on agriculture is required to create a trade/surplus economy in Timor-Leste at the national level, while enhancing the economy and promoting opportunities and lifting the local people out of poverty. At the same time, creating new industries, jobs and mitigating climate change and long-term ecological management challenges will require strong water governance.
Timor-Leste has demonstrated to the world that it remains a stable democracy for both its people and the global community through conducting peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections in the last decade. Timor-Leste has embraced and made serious concessions around the SDGs while being supported by the UNDP and other relevant local, national and international stakeholders in its quest to improve and enhance the lives across urban and rural Timor-Leste.
Therefore, while Timor-Leste is probed, judged and scrutinized by the international community in its many forms, it should be remembered the country is underpinned by a strong, committed and resilient population that has fought and won against previous illegal occupations that previously impeded on the growth, innovation and lives of the same population as today, who are now the drivers, carers and the future of Timor-Leste, as it navigates through the 21st and beyond.
*Christopher Ryan is an International Relations lecturer and researcher with a focus on post-conflict peacebuilding and development.