In Timor-Leste, WASH investments help drive COVID-19 success

Timor-Leste WASH COVID-19
(Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To date, Timor-Leste has only 24 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and no deaths.  It hasn’t registered a new case since 24 April.

This is impressive for one of Southeast Asia’s least developed countries where 4 in 10 people lack regular access to a stable water supply, which means handwashing is not always an entrenched habit, and social distancing can be difficult.

Immediate action, including stay-at-home orders, played a large role. Success is also due to governments and international development organisations supporting the Timor-Leste government’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives.

One such project is the Increasing Community Resilience in Oecusse Program (ICRO), which is funded by the US government’s United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and implemented by World Neighbors. The project focuses on the conservation, protection and sustainable management of rural water systems in Oecusse. While an area with significant economic potential, Oecusse currently has some of the country’s worst social, health and economic indicators.

Although ICRO’s main focus is on increasing access to safe water for consumption, the current pandemic has brought to light a number of corollary benefits helping communities prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

Promoting the importance of handwashing has been part of ICRO since it started in 2015. As the table below shows, it has had results:

Promoting the importance of handwashing as part of the Increasing Community Resilience in Oecusse Program has had results.

These numbers increased through a community-based education program. In addition, World Neighbors trained the villages in making “tippy taps” – a simple low-cost technology used for handwashing in areas where water is scarce. Jerry cans, which are hung with rope mounted on a simple bamboo structure, are operated with a foot pedal causing it to tip and release enough water for handwashing. Near the tippy tap is a soap container. Raising awareness about the importance of handwashing is critical to the success of these inexpensive and easily installed public handwashing stations. While there is no control group of villages, we’re confident that without these interventions these increases simply wouldn’t have happened.

ICRO also addresses the lack of piped water systems found in many villages in Oecusse, or the non-functioning, disintegrating systems found in others. New networks have been installed, and existing ones have been repaired and multiple tap stands spread throughout a village. As a result, people need to travel far less distance to collect water and fewer people queue at each access point. This has made it much easier to implement social distancing measures.

In most of the villages in which the program operates, residents have established community-based savings and loans groups. Villagers contribute small amounts to the group and take out small loans, at nominal interest. Members are trained in literacy and basic bookkeeping skills. In normal times, these loans are used to pay for children’s school fees or to make small improvements to homes. During this COVID-19 emergency, savings and credit groups have been used as “micro-safety nets”, allowing villagers to take out loans for more immediate needs to help deal with the economic impact caused by the virus.

Finally, because the program has increased access to water, vegetable gardens have been created near the community water points. This has greatly increased the nutritional intake of households, improving people’s health and their immune systems – again a very important preventative measure against COVID-19.

Due to WASH projects like this and other related investments, communities in Timor-Leste not only have improved access to clean water, but they are in a better position to face the coronavirus than they would have been otherwise. Simple innovations, implemented in a patient and comprehensive way, have so far helped the country mitigate the impact of the virus. There are lessons there for other developing – and developed – countries.

This post is part of the #COVID-19 and the Pacific series.

image_pdfDownload PDF

The WASH project this article is about is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of World Neighbors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

Edd Wright

Edd Wright is Regional Director for Southeast Asia at World Neighbors.


  • I lived in Oecussi for two years as an anthropologist and ILO advisor and have just published a book on the place, so I have a pretty good sense of how things go there.

    Are you seriously claiming that as a result of ICRO, the rate of hand-washing before meal preparation went from nothing to more than half? Or that three times as many people now wash their hands ‘after defection’ as they did before. In the course of three years? Seriously? Your table doesn’t ‘show results’, it shows that people (including your superiors I imagine) are unreasonably prone to believing what they see in tables, even if it is clearly out of touch with reality.

    You also imply that the ‘community-based savings and loans groups’ that operate in Oecussi’s villages have something to do with ICRO, neglecting to mention (or more likely simply not being aware, I presume you don’t live in Oecussi and are too busy to learn Uab Meto) that they’ve been round since the Indonesian era. Your neglecting to mention this essential context is really quite deceptive.

    I realise that your job involving doing public relations, but your claiming partial credit for COVID-19 not spreading in the Enclave is really quite misleading.

  • Given that every published case was imported or (probably the overwhelming majority) contracted in quarantine centres, how can you credit hand washing and other community measures with T-L’s success (so far!)? Early closure of the borders has been the key.

Leave a Comment