Preparation and cooperation bring a community together, as they await the arrival of water

A UNICEF project to bring water to a village in the mountains of Timor-Leste is demonstrating the power of community action

UNICEF Timor-Leste
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Galvin

01 December 2019

Close to 400 people who live in the small mountainous village of Bura in Timor-Leste’s Ermera Municipality have never had a basic supply of piped water. The ingredients that go into each day’s meals here can’t be properly washed, and there isn’t enough water to mop the floors of the three classrooms in the village school, known as EBF No.1281 Passa-Hei. 

A ‘shower’ in Bura consists of a splash of water on the face, if a family member has been able to fill a bucket at the often-dry stream that meanders through this remote part of the country. And because there is no water supply in the village, the school does not even have any toilets, which means children have to travel home or go in the surrounding bushes.

“At the moment, there is no water, so we have to travel far to find some,” says Casimiro Pereira dos Santos, President of EBF No.1281 Passa-Hei’s Parents and Teachers Association. “This is no life for us. We lose time having to do this each day.

“Water is so important. Without it we are not healthy. Our environment cannot be clean. We get sick,” he adds.

Unfortunately, the situation of the students at EBF No.1281 Passa-Hei is not uncommon in Timor-Leste. More than 40 per cent of the 1,362 schools across the country do not have access to an improved water source and close to 30 per cent do not have toilet facilities. Similarly, more than 30 per cent of rural households do not use improved drinking water sources, and more than 40 per cent of all households do not use improved sanitation facilities.

Some days, if these children and the rest of Bura’s residents are lucky, some water may flow down to their village from another community higher up the mountain, which does have a water system in place. If limited water is available, however, and the elevated community uses it all, Bura is left dry.

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Galvin
EBF No.1281 Passa-Hei in Talimoro suco and its 200 students will soon have access to water for the first time.

Fortunately, the situation is changing. A UNICEF-supported project in Bura to connect the village and school to a water source is giving the community hope and spurring collective action. 

The source that will feed the community’s gravity-fed water supply system is located some four kilometers from the village, up the side of a steep and rugged mountain. Roads are being built just to get there, but progress has been slow due to access difficulties. As a result, construction of the water system has taken longer than expected, as supplies have had to be carried up by hand. 

While these obstacles have undoubtedly prolonged the myriad challenges faced by the people of Bura who live without water, it has also highlighted an incredible display of community preparedness, resilience and cooperation. Many community members, from village elders to youths, have been working in shifts to haul construction materials up the mountain by hand.

The village has also rallied to establish administrative and technical groups to ensure the sustainability of the water supply system when it is completed.

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Galvin
Chief of the Water Management Group Casimiro Pereira dos Santos (left) with other GMF members, including 18-year-old technician Marcelina dos Santos Soares (second from right).

The project is resulting in other areas of progress for the village, too, which now boasts its first female water supply system technician. Marcelina dos Santos Soares is 18 years old and is receiving training from UNICEF’s implementing partner Haburas Ita Moris (HIM) and the government’s National Directorate of Water Supply (DNSA) on the various tools used for maintenance of the water system, how to ‘trade’ pipes (create ridges that form joins), and on the names of various fittings, so she can place orders in the future.

“I am supporting the construction at the intake point and afterwards I will work on the pipes,” Marcelina says. “After my training, I will be able to fix any problems in the water supply system. I am happy I was selected, because I want to learn all about the system. Men usually do things like this, but this time, I am.”

“Fixing and maintaining the system can be done by us, so that in the future we do not have to rely on the government to help with issues that we can take care of ourselves,” says Casimiro, who is also the chief of the Water Management Group, or GMF.

When the GMF group was established, Bura’s residents also set up a community treasury, where each household will contribute one dollar a month to go towards the maintenance of the water supply system. Once the water reaches the village, the treasury coordinator will collect the money, deposit it into a bank account and draw upon it when work and repairs are required.

“When a tap or socket breaks, we can use the money to buy spare parts to fix it,” says Bendita da Silva, the GMF’s treasurer and the coordinator of one of the system’s taps. “Everyone is happy with the arrangement and is willing to contribute.”

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Galvin
Domingos Soares, the School Coordinator at EBF No.1281 Passa-Hei, says his students' lives and health will improve dramatically when water arrives to their village.

The mobilization among Bura’s residents demonstrates a strong commitment to the sustainability of the water supply system, not least to prevent the various illnesses that can be caused by a lack of water and sanitation. 

Diarrhoea is the second biggest cause of under-five deaths in Timor-Leste after pneumonia and is often a direct result of children consuming unsafe water and being exposed to unhygienic practices, such as unwashed foods and unwashed hands. 

Its proper maintenance will also help to ensure that Ermera Municipality maintains its Open Defecation Free (ODF) status, and the many health and nutrition benefits that go along with it.

“When the water comes, school feeding will become much healthier – the utensils can be cleaned, we can wash the ingredients, and students can wash their hands. We will also be able to clean our rooms and water our flowers,” says Domingos Soares, the EBF No.1281’s School Coordinator. “Each year our community is getting bigger, so we have to make the effort now to ensure our health in the future.”

Bura’s gravity-fed water system is one of six in Timor-Leste being constructed or rehabilitated with funding from Japan’s Ono City.