One Year On – Another Flash Flood Hits Dili, Timor-Leste: A Personal Account

Article | The flash flood that hit Timor-Leste on Easter Sunday, struck hard and fast, leaving a trail of devastation, with over 40 people losing their lives, and more than 14,000 needing emergency shelter and support.

This article describes my own personal experience of the flash flood in Dili, Timor-Leste. To be clear, this in no way attempts to represent an average experience of the floods.

My partner and I were extremely fortunate to have minimal loss and everyone around us is safe. However, many weren’t so fortunate and have lost so much during these recent flash flood events, and thousands have a long road ahead to repair houses and replace their belongings.

If you can help those in need, please consider making a donation via one of the GoFundMe links below, or simply visit the GoFundMe website and search for Timor-Leste. Thank you for helping.

Timor-Leste Easter Floods Disaster Relief:

Help feed flood victims in Timor-Leste:

Help Pro-Ema provide food to flood-affected Dili:

Helping Dili Flood Victims:

My partner and I have lived in Timor-Leste for a couple of years, albeit with a gap when we we’re repatriated home to New Zealand, this time last year, due to another flash flood and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We made it back to Timor-Leste earlier this year, found a new house and continued where we had left off.

We lay in bed on Saturday night, listening to the thunderous pounding of the rain on the metal roof. My thoughts repeatedly jolted back to last year’s flash flooding experience, and the anxiety levels were rising. Last year, the house we lived in at the time, next to a river, filled up with over 1.5 feet of thick, brown muddy water in a matter of minutes – it was scary and left me shaken.

This time last year, I left my house with the water level rising and proceeded to help my neighbours rip sheets of galvanised metal fencing loose, and smash holes in stone walls, to release the water from the compound. We sustained minor damage to the house, and lost belongings, however, most importantly everyone was safe.

I didn’t want to experience that feeling of fight or flight again…

And that’s what was keeping me awake now, as my partner and I both got up numerous times throughout a restless Saturday night to check on the situation outside. I stood in the living room, peering out of the window into the dark at the water levels through flickering light, watching torrents of water spill from the rooftop, steadily filling up our compound, having reached about 6 inches deep at this point.

I kept reassuring myself that this was ‘normal’, it’s wet season after all…

As a precaution, still reassuring myself I was overreacting in response to the previous flash flood experience, I moved our laptops, electric power bars and a few bits and pieces to higher ground, just in-case, before heading back to bed, now early morning on Easter Sunday, unable to do anything but lie, think, and wait for the pounding drumming to pass.

Eventually, mentally drained, and exhausted, we both fell asleep and awoke a couple of hours later, with the sound of the cats meowing at the bedroom door, ready for their breakfast. The rain was still beating down.

Upon going into the living room, I quickly yelled to my partner for help as brown sloshing water had filled the living room, bathroom and pantry.  We frantically went about moving furniture, food and other belongings from our living room, which is the lowest room in our house, to our bedroom, which is set up a crucial 6 inches higher.

At this point, the water was only 3-4 inches deep in the house, over a foot deep in the compound, and the road was a brown, unrecognisable river, but from experience I knew that things could change very quickly and kept getting what we could to higher ground, pulling plugs from the walls, while keeping one eye on the situation outside.

I could hear the faint sounds of people yelling outside, our landlady, her family, and the neighbours reacting to the ongoing situation. My partner checked in with them over the deafening noise of the rain, they were okay, and everyone quickly resumed getting whatever they could to higher ground at frantic pace.

Unfortunately, our landlady’s house is ever so slightly lower than ours, and their house and belongings took the brunt of the flooding from our shared outdoor space; submerged in muddy water.

My mobile phone was beeping non-stop, friends from around Dili, checking in and also providing updates on their personal situation. I quickly skimmed what I could, checking for emergencies and that everyone was okay, relative to the situation, and continued with the task at hand.

A friend, who lives near the river in the Bidau area of Dili, had evacuated her house, along with her neighbours, when the water had reached waist height. The river had burst its banks, washing away bridges and turning the road into a raging river. The water levels were going up and down quickly, so they picked a moment and escaped, walking to seek relative safety in Metiaut, an area along the coast, passing big rock landslides, thick mud and rushing torrents of water on their way.

Meanwhile, back at our house, with everyone safe and all belongings moved to higher ground, I clutched at my backpack – containing cash, passports, laptops, clothes, and some drinking water – ready to leave at any moment, while monitoring the water levels, continuously checking in on people and attempting to stay as calm as possible. With rain still coming down, and the power out, there was not much we could do but sit and wait.

Around mid-morning, the rain thankfully eased. The water drained back out of our house, leaving a thin layer of mud, and water levels outside the house were now steady. People from the neighbourhood started to emerge and came together to kick off the recovery with buckets, brushes, mops.  Our road had mercifully been washed clear of mud by the retreating flood water.  So the goal was to move water and mud out of our slightly lower-set compound and houses into the road.

The rain continued to ease, as did the stress levels, as the kids in the neighbourhood laughed and splashed as they swept wave after wave of water on its way down the street.

This took most of Sunday, a repetitive yet somewhat therapeutic exercise, throwing bucket after bucket of brown flood water onto the road, from the compound and houses. Some worked tirelessly inside the houses, salvaging what they could, sweeping water from each room, and tackling the thick layer of muddy sediment from the tiled floors, walls, doors and everywhere else.

It wasn’t until later on Sunday night, finally able to retreat into our homes, that we got a fuller picture of the impact on the rest of Dili and the wider Timor-Leste.

We were the lucky ones. We don’t live near a river. Unable to cope with the deluge of water, many burst their banks, and many new torrents of water formed, resulting in most of the city, as well as many of the municipalities, being hit extremely hard by flood water, mud, debris, and rock slides, leaving many in complete disarray.

Thousands needed to seek support from quickly established emergency shelters across the city, having lost everything, their homes, belongings and livelihoods. People rallied together and helped as best they could.

We spent the following day in foot deep mud, helping a friend dig out her driveway and compound, filling up wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, dumping the mud into the river, and repeating the process over and over throughout the day.

Within a 100m radius of her house, there was evidence of river walls being washed away, bridges destroyed, roads ripped up, houses full of water, mud and debris, and peoples’ belongings lining the mud-covered roads; furniture, mattresses, clothes and kids’ toys. It was soul-destroying to see.

Despite the awful situation, and it really is awful, the way in which people came together, helping in any way they could, was awe-inspiring to witness. There were still smiles to be found, even when knee deep in the mud and working to bring some level of normality back. There was a feeling of everyone being in it together, filthy, yet doing their bit, and doing their best. The Timorese resilience really shone through.

While the nature of a flash flood is that it is sudden and rapid, the impacts will be much longer lasting. 

Those needing the support of the emergency shelters, both within Dili and the municipalities, continues to grow, as does the number of emergency shelters themselves, which are providing over 14,000 people – those whose homes were hardest hit – a safe space, food, water and other essential services.

The death-toll has increased to over 40, with others still missing, and COVID-19 continues to be a concern across the country. Dili and two other municipalities were in lockdown prior to the flood to try to contain the spread of COVID. But as people attempt to clean-up and recover, it has been necessary to lift the lockdown – a tradeoff of urgent response to a natural disaster versus containing the virus.

Every day, I see more and more online – posts, photographs and videos – showing the extent of the visible devastation caused throughout Timor-Leste; to the people, homes, schools, medical centres, roads, rivers, electricity and water supplies, and everything else in between. And this is likely to further develop over the coming days, weeks and months.

It’s a long, hard road back from this horrific event, and right now, it still feels too early, and too raw to think ahead to the long term. Instead, my thoughts are with those that have lost everything, those that are relying on whatever means of support is available – friends, family, emergency shelters, NGOs, organisations, individuals or any other means – to help them simply get through the horrendous situation they find themselves in.

The way in each people have acted quickly, helping whoever and however they can, and doing their best to support one and other – both from in-country and from afar – in these most challenging of times, gives me hope.

If you want to help, please consider donating by either using one of the following links or simply by visiting the GoFundMe website and searching for Timor-Leste.

Thank you for helping and making a difference.

Timor-Leste Easter Floods Disaster Relief:

Help feed flood victims in Timor-Leste:

Help Pro-Ema provide food to flood-affected Dili:

Helping Dili Flood Victims:

Hi, I’m Adam Constanza, I’m a freelance content creator focused on developing tourism in some of the lesser known places. My partner and I currently live, work and play in the beautiful country of Timor-Leste, South East Asia.

Feel free to subscribe to my YouTube Channel for more.

If you have any questions, please contact me via email. Thanks, Adam

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