I was in Dili a few days ago for one of my frequent trips. Thankfully I will be going back full time again in January – but on this occasion I got terribly dirty and very depressed because we got the basics wrong.
For those of us who see Dili from two wheels, as opposed to four, the last few weeks have been instructive. Dili is dirtier than I can ever remember it. In fact it is at times filthy. When its dry, there is so much dust and other nasty stuff in the air, driving a motorcycle now involves respiratory health hazards. Its sometimes impossible to drive on two wheels without safety glasses for all the stuff in the air. When its wet the drainage system overflows and brings alot of lovely things with it.
Back in the dreamy days of UNTAET some in the international community had aspirations of creating the world’s first wireless country, the next Bali cum Singapore. It has not turned out that way, and I could not help but wonder how things would have turned out without such foreign lofty and expensive dreams. But what were the engineers doing?
But I digress, back to the dirt. There has been a perfect storm of things to bring this dirty Dili about. Rain storms, a building boom, more rain storms, weak infrastructure, and some serious urbanisation.
Firstly, there when it rains hard it floods portions of central Dili, and its now a Timorese facebook sport to post photos of parts of Dili under water. Once the waters break the limited capacity of Dili’s drainage system the mud, rubbish, and raw sewage gets to roam free. If memory serves me correctly the international community has never gotten around to helping out to fix Dili’s drainage system. So much for the presence of hundreds peacekeeping force engineers – and a few billion dollars.
So what is one result of this? Once the waters subside, the effluent is left on the streets, given time to dry and then morphs into dust, waste and live bacteria.
Secondly, in 2005 Timor-Leste had a budget of $150 million/annum and now its looking like a billion dollar budget will be passed for 2011. Certainly, its a good thing to see the Government have some funds to put in place to rebuild Dili (and hopefully other parts of Timor-Leste). However, the demolishing of old buildings and the new construction works, bringing with them more heavy equipment trundling around Dili than ever before, is further adding to the festival of rubbish in the air.
Thirdly, with the added cash comes consumption. I used to marvel at the lack of rubbish in Timor-Leste. Indeed, outside of Dili its still almost an entirely pristine island. So much so I often wonder if it was a good thing that Timor-Leste’s development was stunted for centuries. Then again I remember the terribly low life expectancy and think again.
With consumption comes rubbish and waste. This, pardon the pun, crap is really giving the city a facelift, of the wrong variety. Just a few minutes after any downpour / flood you will see tonnes of plastic bottles, bags and sewage flow into Dili harbour. After a recent downpour I received an SMS from someone – forwarded to me I think – stating: “The sea outside Dili Beach Hotel has hundreds of plastic bottles bobbing about in it. I must hurriedly think of a metaphor for development in ‘rai doben’.” I popped down through the dust and mud and got the below shot.
Notably, the Government recently released its stats on the census. Timor-Leste’s population is growing fast, but not nearly as fast as was forecast – however Dili’s population has grown by 33% in just 6 years…… from 175,000 in 2004 to 235,000 in 2010. That is quite startling. In 1975 only about 20,000 people lived in Dili. It also accounts for alot more beer cans, sewage, plastic bags, discarded water bottles and human waste.
Then I think back to the minimum 6 rotations of several different UN engineering battalions that were in Timor-Leste from 1999-2004. At the cost of countless millions not a finger was lifted to maintain, develop or improve Dili’s drainage system. Capacity was present. The will was not.
When I talk to my Timorese friends of the older generation they muse about a quaint but orderly and clean town with wide roads and plenty of cool shaded places to watch the time slide by. Then came a civil war, invasion, occupation, forced urbanisation and alot of post 1999 workshops and seminars.
The minute I drive past Hera to the east, Tibar to the west and Marabia to the south things return to normal. To the unspoiled Timor-Leste I can remember just 10 years ago. Then again, things are so much better than then in so many other ways.
Having said that wouldn’t it be a good idea to put Dili urban planning high on the agenda for the next Timor-Leste Development Partners Meeting (TLDPM) in 2011? There is no reason why Dili could not become a beautiful place once again. All it needs is cash, a serious plan and some even more serious waste removal/management.