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Nation-building policies in Timor-Leste: Disaster risk reduction, including climate change adaptation

This paper examines nation-building in the small island developing state of Timor-Leste in the context of disaster risk reduction, which necessarily includes climate change adaptation.


Few studies have explored the relationships between nation-building, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Focusing on small island developing states, this paper (view/download here or from the right-hand column of this page) examines nation-building in Timor-Leste, a small island developing state that recently achieved independence.

Nation-building in Timor-Leste is explored in the context of disaster risk reduction, which necessarily includes climate change adaptation. The study presents a synopsis of Timor-Leste’s history and its nation-building efforts as well as an overview of the state of knowledge of disaster risk reduction including climate change adaptation. It also offers an analysis of significant gaps and challenges in terms of vertical and horizontal governance, large donor presence, data availability and the integration of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation for nation-building in Timor-Leste. Relevant and applicable lessons are provided from other small island developing states to assist Timor-Leste in identifying its own trajectory out of underdevelopment while it builds on existing strengths.

The text below consists of excerpts from this detailed article, which was published in Disasters in October 2014 (Volume 38, Issue 4,pages 690–718).

Background to the article

Nation-building faces significant challenges, both in the theory of trying to define a nation and national identity, and in the practice of maintaining momentum in improving citizens’ lives without being derailed from the dream of successful independence due to enduring development concerns. Disasters are among the development concerns that can threaten citizens’ well-being—be it over the short term, due to earthquakes or hurricanes, or over the long term, due to persistent droughts and climate change impacts.

Disaster diplomacy theory, which suffers from gaps in the literature, does not explicitly address nation-building factors that influence disaster response and disaster risk reduction or vice versa. Overall, few studies have examined how disaster-related activities can become an integral part of nation-building or how a specific disaster might undermine or boost nation-building efforts. Similarly, in practice, the former international blueprint for disaster risk reduction—the Hyogo Framework for Action* (UNISDR, 2005)—mentions neither state-building nor nation-building. Further research could enhance the general understanding of the interactions between nation-building and disaster risk reduction, both in theory and in practice.

One geographical area about which some case studies exist is the small island developing states (SIDS), a collection of 52 islands and territories in the tropics and sub-tropics. Their vulnerability and resilience to disasters, and especially climate change, has been well articulated in theory and in practice. This literature emphasises that SIDS characteristics display both vulnerabilities and resiliencies to different forms of disaster and each needs to be factored into any plans for improvements.

While CCA covers activities to reduce the impacts of projected climate change, discussing DRR, including CCA, necessarily involves climate change mitigation, such as activities to reduce climate change-related gas emissions and to increase sinks for these gases (IPCC, 2007). Similarly, many DRR activities are strongly linked to energy efficiency (Begum, Komoo and Pereira, 2011; Etkin, 2008) and sustainable forestry (Sudmeier- Rieux and Ash, 2009; Wisner, 2001), both of which are key climate change mitigation activities. While highlighting CCA, this paper discusses both CCA and climate change mitigation within the context of DRR.

*The Hyogo Framework for Action was superseeded by the Sendai Frameword for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015. You can read more about Climate Change, DRR and the Sendai Framework here.

Concluding comments (abridged)

Few examples exist of direct implementation of DRR, including CCA, as part of nation-building. Indeed, Timor-Leste’s situation is relatively unique, but the country can learn, in particular, from experience in other SIDS that are working on DRR and CCA. That should cover not only vulnerabilities that cause problems in the country, but also the resiliencies that provide ways of improving.

DRR, including CCA, is only one part of a wide array of development and sustainability challenges facing Timor-Leste. Other examples are unsustainable farming and fishing practices, soil erosion and an overdependence on unsustainable oil and gas exploitation (Scheiner, 2011). This is in addition to social issues including coming to terms with past violence, reducing gender inequity and dealing with gender-based violence (Nevins, 2003; Hynes et al., 2004).

Timor-Leste can draw on its SIDS networks, learning from DRR and CCA successes and failures around the world. Emulating Samoa’s process for developing coastal management plans (Daly et al., 2010) would be an excellent start. It would also be useful to put in place measures such as the transparency portal to prevent the type of corruption and nepotism that plagued Antigua and Barbuda until 2004, when a family dynasty was defeated in a national election (Coram, 1993; Erikson and Minson, 2005). Learning from Nauru’s failure to manage its natural resource wealth (Connell, 2006; Gowdy and McDaniel, 1999) would also help to avoid similar problems.

Ultimately, Timor-Leste has plenty of support and opportunities for the young country to select its own trajectory out of underdevelopment. That means tackling the various sustainability and nation-building challenges simultaneously, in a way that supports both rather than trading them off against each other. The lure of quick money for development through the exploitation of natural resources, including fossil fuels, or through dependence on a single donor, such as China, are major hurdles to overcome (La’o Hamutuk, 2011). In Timor-Leste’s nation-building work, DRR, including CCA, should neither dominate nor be neglected. Rather, it should be incorporated and delivered through key nation-building tasks, including governance and development, to ensure a sustainable path for nation-building in Timor-Leste while avoiding potential detrimental effects from hazards such as climate change. If that were achieved, then Timor-Leste would become a lesson to the world, especially small countries, on how to incorporate DRR, including CCA, into nation-building.

View the article in the Wiley Online Library

Read about Climate Change and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

Suggested Citation:

Mercer, J., Kelman, I., do Rosario, F., de Deus de Jesus Lima, A., da Silva, A., Beloff, A., McClean, A. (2014) Nation-building policies in Timor-Leste: disaster risk reduction, including climate change adaptation, Disasters, Vol. 38 (4),p. 690–718

The authors include three national government colleagues who were directly involved in DRR, including CCA, at a policy level; three interna- tional colleagues who have worked within civil society and United Nations agencies in Timor-Leste on the topics of DRR, including CCA, for extended periods of time; and one colleague whose work has mainly taken a SIDS and DRR (and CCA) perspective.

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