Dili – Tens of thousands of people are preparing for their third bout of flooding since 2006 in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) as the rainy season once again descends on Timor-Leste.
The government has so far helped over 7,500 families return home in 2008 and is planning to close more camps soon, but many IDPs will face heavy flooding once again and in some cases landslides in the coming months.
"Our idea is to prepare for the rainy season as if the current camps are going to be there for the duration of it," the country director for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Luis Vieira, told IRIN.
IOM and other aid agencies, along with the government, are in the process of assessing the needs of each camp with the aim of developing an action plan.
"Some work has been done to raise tents above the ground to reduce potential flooding, but some tents have deteriorated and are coming to the end of their useful lifespans, so we will have to purchase more tarpaulins," Viera said.
The largest remaining IDP camp in Metinaro, 25km east of Dili, and home to almost 10,000 people, is one of the most vulnerable.
Situated at the bottom of a hill near the coast, the area is prone to flooding and in past rainy seasons dwellings built near run-off areas have been destroyed by landslides.
Risk of disease Loss of property is a concern, but along with the rain comes an increase in health risks. "We have a lot of health problems because there are so many people crowded together," vice camp manager Infalito Pinto told IRIN.
Around 60 percent of health problems in IDP camps are attributable to water-borne diseases such as dysentery, diarrhoea, malaria and dengue, said health authorities.
"If there is a flood tomorrow, stagnant water in and around the camp might create a spate of epidemics which could spread to the camps quickly, creating another disaster," Suresh Pokharel, water and environmental sanitation adviser with Plan International, told IRIN.
Roads cut off by floods can also cause major problems as drinking water for the camp is trucked in daily, said Pokharel.
The key to successfully preventing and dealing with environmental health problems associated with the rainy season is by getting the communities to work together, Pokharel said.
"We are providing clean water, but it doesn't mean IDPs are drinking clean water," Pokharel told IRIN. Dirty communal tanks and household water storage pots are a common problem, he said. "There are so many ways in which water can be contaminated," he said.
Awareness raising activities that inform people as to the need to keep communal water tanks clean, and improve personal hygiene are being carried out in the camps by the government and supporting aid agencies.
Most communities are receptive to the efforts of the non-governmental organisations and government agencies to improve camp conditions and sanitation.
However, it can be a challenge to get communities to take responsibility for their environmental health and to maintain facilities, said Vieira.
They know they are only living in the camps temporarily, so rather than thinking about maintaining the sites, their focus is on plans for returning to their original villages, Pokharel said, even though most of them in reality will not be leaving the IDP camps any time soon.
It is unlikely the Metinaro camp will close before the end of 2008, but the government hopes all the IDP camps will be closed in 2009.
Tents and sanitation equipment need to be maintained until then, providing an opportunity to teach people skills. As additional sanitary toilets and safe water storage tanks are installed, they demonstrate to the IDPs more hygienic practices, Pokharel said. Such environmental health awareness will serve them well in the longer-term when they return home. (sm/bj/cb)