Submitted by Edward Parkinson
24 Nov 2023

In October 2023, the Food and Agriculture Organization of Timor-Leste activated its Anticipatory Action Protocol (AAP) for Agricultural Drought related to the El Niño phenomenon. Edward Parkinson, an international agro-climate services specialist who is leading the project for FAO Timor-Leste, shares some background on the situation and role of anticipatory action.

Anticipating drought in Timor-Leste

El Niño is here and occupying the thoughts of nearly every anticipatory action practitioner. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Timor-Leste, where the declaration of El Niño and the Indian Ocean Dipole has raised concerns about the impacts these phenomena might bring. When combined, they can instigate drier than normal conditions across the country  and there are already stark warnings about what this might cause. 

The risk of impending drought in Timor-Leste has stirred the government, humanitarian organizations and development actors into discussions and collaborative strategies. Within this context, anticipatory action has arisen as a pivotal instrument to forge a vital connection between early warnings and concrete measures. This can help to shield vulnerable communities from the potential fallout of this looming threat.

The concept of anticipatory action in Timor-Leste is a blend of the novel and the familiar. Timor-Leste's history is replete with examples of anticipatory practices although they often went unrecognized as such – in which communities, local stakeholders and government entities intuitively followed the principle of acting ahead of an impending hazard. 

Meanwhile, 2023 has seen a notable expansion of anticipatory action initiatives and marked progress towards its official institutionalization. These efforts have culminated in the creation of a comprehensive national roadmap for anticipatory action and the formation of a government-led working group on this approach. Another step towards formalizing this approach was the recent Anticipatory Action Protocol to tackle the increased risk of drought.

Connecting the dots between warning and action 

In mid-September 2023, the early warning signs were clear: drier conditions were on the way. The newly established Combined Drought Index, which was being actively monitored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, and Forestry and the National Directorate of Meteorology and Geophysics, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), had identified high-risk areas in the country. 

This index provides an assessment of conditions at the provincial level, specifically focusing on the potential development of agricultural drought. And, by October, it had issued drought alerts covering the entire country – a significant increase from the previous count in September.

The Anticipatory Action Protocol for Agricultural Drought outlines the step-by-step process of connecting information from the Combined Drought Index to anticipatory activities that will mitigate the expected impacts. In collaboration with the government, FAO sorted internal funds from its anticipatory action window to start putting this process into action. 

As a result, several high-risk municipalities in Timor-Leste have been targeted, including Baucau, Covalima, Liquica, Viqueque and the Special Administrative Region Oecusse-Ambeno. The first phase of activities focused on communicating early warnings to drought-vulnerable communities and training to enhance their capacity for anticipatory drought management. 

As the risk of drought continues to increase across Timor-Leste, efforts to protect farming households will ramp up until the peak of the drought is felt; this is expected to be around February/March 2024. This will include the implementation of community-specific anticipatory action plans that are tailored to individual villages, which were developed in partnership with local communities to mitigate the effects of drought on agricultural production and proactively prevent food insecurity in the coming months. Activities outlined in these plans include repairs to existing water-access systems, installing pumps and water-harvesting measures, expanding facilities for water storage, diversifying food production, cash-for-work schemes, and multi-purpose cash through adaptive social protection for the most vulnerable households.

A long history with El Niño and drought

Timor-Leste's previous encounter with this hazard was in 2015/16, which was also an El Niño year. During that period, numerous farming communities grappled with water-stressed crops and livestock, resulting in significant agricultural and livelihood losses. Approximately 40 per cent of households faced food shortages, plunging them into severe food insecurity due to the far-reaching impacts of the drought.

The numbers alone fail to capture the profound impact that drought can have in the country, however. Farmers speaking to FAO shared stories that linked drought to a cycle of escalating indebtedness, or the need to withdraw their children from school.

People also noted the burden of increased workloads, particularly for women. During droughts, the responsibility for collecting water in Timor-Leste typically falls on women, and their accounts reveal the challenges they face. They described walking for hours to collect water, enduring a heightened risk of sexual violence and harassment along the way.

Even as the government and on-the-ground actors become increasingly attuned to El Niño and the impending drought, a common narrative persists among international partners and donors: while they acknowledge the precision of the forecasts and give their backing for anticipatory and preventive measures, they frequently point to the necessity of a formal disaster declaration before they can release funds.

The limited availability of funds for anticipatory action constraints efforts to fully avert the impacts of drought. Despite the efforts of the government, the Humanitarian Country Team and other stakeholders, it appears increasingly likely that a humanitarian response will still be required once the full impacts of the drought take effect.

Underlying vulnerabilities: a crisis years in the making

The expected impacts of the impending drought cannot be solely attributed to the shifts in El Niño or the Indian Ocean Dipole. Timor-Leste is entering the forecast El Niño period amid a backdrop of compounding shocks and factors that exacerbate this risk. For example, the resilience of local communities has been tested by recurrent flooding in 2021, 2022 and 2023, which reduced agricultural production and eroded communities’ preparedness for drought.

Based on recent data from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system, up to 22 per cent of the population now grapples with higher levels of food insecurity. This figure surpasses the levels seen prior to the 2015/2016 drought, which is widely regarded as the worst in the past two decades. Another alarming sign comes from the All Rice Price Index for July 2023, which showed a 19.7 per cent year-on-year increase in prices. 

The ability to proactively manage risks is further hampered by the persistence of unsustainable practices that exacerbate vulnerability, including the widespread use of slash-and-burn techniques that leave ashen scars across the rural landscape. In a context where it can be expedient and effective to draw linear lines between climate change and the frequency and intensity of natural hazards, and in turn the impacts of these hazards, it is vital that anticipatory action practitioners keep other drivers of risk at the forefront of their work.

The Special Fund for Emergency and Rehabilitation Activities (SFERA) allocation was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office. The Anticipatory Action Protocol was developed as part of the ‘Enhancing Early Warning Systems to build greater resilience to hydro-meteorological hazards in Timor-Leste’ project, funded by the Green Climate Fund. The work in Timor-Leste is being implemented in full partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Forestry, the Civil Protection Authority and the National Directorate of Meteorology and Geophysics.