How a small island is preparing for major climate challenges

UNDP in Asia and the Pacific
6 min readJul 1, 2020


UNDP Climate Change Adaptation projects in Timor Leste. ©UNDP

Timor-Leste is the newest country in Southeast Asia. With less than 1.2 million people and over 700 kilometers of coastline, Timor-Leste has a largely rural population who face increasing adversity in the face of climate change. Coastal cities and communities are threatened by the rise of sea level, flooding, cyclones, strong winds, and extreme rainfall, which causes damage to infrastructure, increases water borne diseases and landslides.

UNDP Climate Change Adaptation projects in Timor Leste. ©UNDP

On the other end of the spectrum, Timor-Leste experiences phases of prolonged drought and heat stress that have exacerbated crop health, human health and livestock health around the country. The Government of Timor-Leste has been making recent strides in their national development agenda and adaptation planning to build resilience towards these impacts and safeguard their citizens and sectors.

Ms. Justina Aurea da Costa Belo, the National Directorate of Climate Change in Timor-Leste

To learn more about Timor-Leste’s National Adaptation Plan (NAP) experience, the joint UNDP-UN Environment NAP Global Support Programme, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), caught up with Justina Aurea da Costa Belo, a professional staff at the National Directorate of Climate Change in Timor-Leste. The NAP-GSP supported the facilitation of Timor-Leste’s initial NAP document. This support included providing the legal framework of the NAP and the national circumstances for Timor-Leste’s environmental, social and economic background. The NAP-GSP supported an overview of the vulnerability assessment results, identifying adaptation priorities in existing and drafted documents that were relevant to regulatory framework for climate change adaptation.

Timor-Leste’s National Adaptation Plan process

Rita Soares Tinoan from the suco of Kotalala. © Alex Ray/UNDP

In March 2020, the UNDP country office in Dili, Timor-Leste supported a national consultation workshop with sectoral stakeholders from government ministries (Public Works, Agriculture and Fisheries, Health, Finance, Education), the National Directorate for Disaster Risk Management under the Secretariat of State for Civil Protection, International Agencies, NGOs and the private sector. Following the two-day workshop, an initial NAP was formulated.

The NAP highlights: (1) Legal Basis and Institutional Arrangement for the NAP; (2) the national circumstances and political, economic and social background; (3) the rationale for focusing on adaptation; (4) National Adaptation Plan Alignment with Existing Strategic, Legal and Regulatory Framework; (5) an overview of the results from a previously conducted vulnerability assessments; (6) Priority Adaptation program for Timor-Leste and (7) Conclusion and Next Steps for Advancing Timor-Leste’s National Adaptation Plan Process to expand the NAPs process from 2020–2022. The NAP will then be reviewed by the UNDP country office and will go to the National Directorate for Climate Change. A validation workshop has been scheduled for June 2020 for finalisation before it is submitted to the UNFCCC.

Understanding the local context is essential to effective adaptation

Photo by Justina Aurea da Costa Belo of the National Directorate of Climate Change during an on-site Vulnerability Assessment of farmland in a ‘suco’ in Timor-Leste.

To prepare the formulation of the NAP, Timor-Leste conducted an integrated vulnerability assessment in several ‘suco’ (villages) around the country. More than 80 percent of the population in Timor-Leste are engaged in subsistence agriculture so it essential the NAP process is evidence-based and targeted. The NAP formulation process also considered previous vulnerability assessments conducted by other agencies.

The vulnerability assessment included on-the-ground field visits, a questionnaire and discussions with the locals and farmers from each suco. On these visits, there was evidence of mass-crop failure due to prolonged droughts. With erratic rainfall and then prolonged dry seasons, the crop cycle and harvest potential is becoming more unpredictable for farmers.

UNDP Climate Change Adaptation projects in Timor Leste. ©UNDP

The NAP formulation process was also considering all related vulnerability assessment results undertaken by all related agencies in the past. During the stakeholder consultation workshop, the vulnerability assessment findings were discussed and the need for more research on climate resilient and drought-resistant crop varieties for development in the agriculture.

Encountering challenges in the NAPs process

UNDP Climate Change Adaptation projects in Timor Leste. ©UNDP

The slightest changes in the climate greatly affect all sectors. Frequent and extreme weather patterns directly impact the decline of coral reef ecosystem services and lack of access to deep-water fishing, as well the agriculture production of staple crops, such as rice and maize that depend on the timing of the wet season.

School of fish off the coast of Timor-Leste © Yuichi Ishida/UNDP

The NAP is an opportunity for a multi-sector approach to adapt and build resilience. The NAP process in Timor-Leste has faced a unique challenge, something they call an “ego-sectoral” issue. In Timor-Leste each ministry feels ownership over their sector, and while the adaptation planning is conducted at the national level, it needs to involve all relevant and key sectors in the country. To overcome this, the consultation workshop identified the need to develop a Ministerial Decree of Law for the NAP so it could be a legally separate entity that will ensure inclusion and uptake in all line ministries.

Associated with ‘Building Shoreline Resilience of Timor-Leste to Protect Local Communities and Their Livelihoods’, a four-year project (2016–2020) implemented by UNDP Timor-Leste in close collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and funding from the Global Environment Facility — Least Developed Countries Fund. © Yuichi Ishida/UNDP

As a small island state, climate impacts, such as ‘rising sea levels’ can cause infrastructure damage, flooding and water-borne diseases, which would therefore trigger involvement of the Ministry of Public Works, Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. The Ministerial Decree of Law allows the ownership of all sector stakeholders in the NAP process. To ensure multi-sector ownership in their climate plans, Timor-Leste is enacting national law — a solution to a common challenge of many countries.

Tibar, Liquica, Timor-Leste. © Yuichi Ishida/UNDP

The difference between the NAP and the NAPA

The difference between Timor-Leste’s National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) that was completed in 2010 and the National Adaptation Plan is that the NAPA focused on urgent and immediate adaptation actions and the NAP focuses on medium to long-term adaptation actions to build resilience. The NAPA was a project-based approach and the NAP has a policy-based approach. Timor-Leste viewed the NAPA as an established process and the NAP is seen as a flexible process.

UNDP Climate Change Adaptation projects in Timor Leste. ©UNDP

2020 and beyond

To prepare for a world with a rise in sea level of between 61cm and 1.1m by 2100, as projected in the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (2019), Timor-Leste is prioritising adaptation to safeguard it’s culture and communities that rely on the dependability of water.

Canals feeding fish farms require little technology to be effective. This removable rock wall slows incoming water to the fish farms. © Alex Ray/UNDP

Timor-Leste now looks forward to the design and implementation of two phases in the NAP. Finalising governance at the national and sub-national levels will allow implementation of the NAP and establish its firm legal mandate. Following the validation workshop in June, the completed NAP will be presented to the Council of Ministers for approval and review, before submission to the UNFCCC. The goal for 2020 is for the National Directorate of Climate Change to formulate a funding proposal to access Green Climate Fund (GCF) financing that will support the next phases of the NAP process.

UNDP Climate Change Adaptation projects in Timor Leste. ©UNDP

In parallel, Timor-Leste is one of the 100 countries being supported by UNDP’s Climate Promise to enhance their NDCs by 2020. Timor-Leste is leveraging on-going efforts to further strengthen its capacity in addressing and responding to climate change. UNDP is supporting Timor-Leste’s efforts in raising adaptation ambition through a GCF project, “Safeguarding rural communities and their physical and economic assets from climate induced disasters in Timor-Leste” to strengthen rural infrastructure, such as water supply systems, rural road and bridges, flood defenses, and irrigation systems.

Story by Melanie Pisano, Climate Change Communications Specialist, UNDP in Asia and the Pacific Regional Bureau, with support from Louis Nunes Da Costa, Communications UNDP Headquarters.



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