TIMOR-LESTE: Preparing for the worst
Dili, 11 November 2010 (IRIN) - Hardly a tremor was felt in Timor-Leste after the undersea 6.1 magnitude earthquake 85km north of the capital, Dili, on 16 October.
The country, sited in one of the world's most volatile volcano and earthquake-prone areas, known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, has been spared any fallout from regional tremors, but experts worry about just how big a disaster such a small country can handle.
The half-island nation of 1.1 million people split off from Indonesia in a bloody independence struggle in 1999 that resulted in the displacement of thousands.
"We are ready for anything, from fire to floods," said Francisco do Rosario, director of the National Disaster Management Directorate (NDMD), which coordinates efforts to prepare for and clean up after disasters.
He confidently cited emergency simulation exercises with the US, Australia and Japan earlier in 2010 and emergency plans drafted for droughts, floods and earthquakes.
But these plans do not reflect the current disaster management structure, nor the decentralized approach taken by the government to dividing up disaster duties, say international experts, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Indeed, after a recent government workshop that evaluated the country's disaster risk management, recommendations were made to create a joint inter-ministerial and NGO partners' disaster response plan, and to hold regular inter-ministerial meetings in an effort to bolster government coordination.
The country has a national disaster risk management inter-ministerial committee, a Secretary of State for Social Assistance and Natural Disasters and the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which houses NDMD.
Until 2 September this year, the Office of the Vice Prime Minister had procurement rights for disaster clean-up, which were revoked after Mario Carrascalão, the former deputy prime minister, was accused of corruption.
At the end of September, the Prime Minister's office asked parliament to suspend the national humanitarian coordinator, the other Vice Prime Minister, José Luis Guterres, on charges of abuse of authority.
Challenges in "day-to-day coordination of disaster risk management activities" include poor coordination between various levels of government as well as among government ministries, according to a report submitted by NDMD to the Secretary of State for Social Assistance and Natural Disasters in late August.
However, Rosario dismissed concerns of lack of leadership in disaster management, and said communities continued to work to minimize any fallout from disasters.
Because of calls for improved needs assessments that provide more and better information before emergencies happen, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been charting needs assessments worldwide since 2008 for the Assessment and Classification of Emergencies project.
Results of assessments by different agencies in Timor-Leste are being compiled.
Cruz Vermelha de Timor-Leste, the Red Cross, conducted its most recent vulnerability assessment five years ago in all 13 districts, finding all to be flood-prone, said its disaster management coordinator, Luis Pedro Pinto.
The Red Cross has trained more than 40 volunteers nationwide to conduct disaster assessments and with support from the International Office for Migration, is installing the country's first solar-powered early warning speaker system in Maliana in the southwestern Bobonaro district.
"The country has been spared widespread death and destruction from natural disasters up to this point," said Pinto. "But we cannot be sure what will come. We have not been severely tested."
Source: IRIN News (http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=90997)