Government of Timor-Leste’s adoption of digital technology strengthens flood response

People stand under a bridge while floodwaters rage past

Timor-Leste recently adopted a new water supply law and policy with the central objective to deliver universal and equitable access to potable water. The Government of Timor-Leste plans to build and/or upgrade water supply systems in up to 41 Administrative Posts (or sub-district capitals).

In 2020, the Government requested technical assistance from the Australian Government. Through the support of the Australian Water Partnership (AWP), partner Similie was tasked with identifying collaboration opportunities between the Australian and Timor-Leste water sectors.

However, on 4 April 2021, shortly after the project commenced, torrential rain caused devastating floods throughout Timor-Leste. Flashfloods occur regularly in the wet/dry tropical river systems of Timor-Leste; however, the recent floods were on a scale not seen since the 1960s. The flooding came after over 350mm of rain fell in less than 8 hours, into already saturated catchments.

A large proportion of the population was impacted by these floods with up to 14,000 people in official emergency evacuation centres in its immediate aftermath and many more displaced locally. In Dili up to 60 per cent of houses have been damaged with over 31,000 families affected by the floods, and 41 people have died and remain missing.

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Debris blocks water from flowing under a bridge after the Timor-Leste floods on 4 April 2021 (credit: Similie)

The damaging effect of the floods, alongside increasing numbers of COVID cases put most other Government projects on hold, as flood response became the priority. The Government of Timor-Leste quickly coordinated a high-level multi-partner meeting to ask for support from international agencies.

Making a data-driven response effort was the government’s priority, however in previous years, paper-based surveys and tally marks on white boards slowed down the process. Understanding this challenge, Similie suggested the use of digital tools for the Government’s official assessments for multi-sectorial and household damage.

The Government requested Simlie’s support in the digital transformation of the assessment process. Similie’s previous work with the government—to offer world-class tech solutions to improve the efficiency of how organisations deliver WaSH and disaster risk reduction services—laid the foundation for a positive partnership in this area. This project quickly grew as the needs of the government increased. Having seen the effects of the flooding, AWP and Similie worked to pivot contract deliverables to provide further support.

With this support, Similie trained over 500 Government and international agency staff on using the KoBo Toolbox application, which is a free digital platform designed to support data collection for coordinated humanitarian responses. This application was used to conduct a national multi-sectorial assessment and household assessments throughout Dili.

“Using KoBo Toolbox for data management was found to be quicker than if an excel spreadsheet and manual entry had been used. It also enabled the uploading of photos for verification, which is needed for the Government’s validation process,” explains Annie Sloman of Oxfam.

Annie and her team of 71 staff, partners, and volunteers—along with the other Australian Humanitarian Partnership partners, Mercy Corps and International Organisation for Migration—led staff and volunteers of varying technological capabilities to complete the door-to-door assessments.

Once the assessment was underway, Similie trained and mentored staff from the National Disaster Operations Center (NDOC) on KoBo Toolbox and data management. Data dashboards were also created using Google Data Studio to quickly show the Government and their partner organisations important information collected during the assessments. Once distribution was underway, Similie and AWP continued their support by providing NDOC with training on creating digital surveys and dashboards.

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Natividade Rodrigues, Junior Meteorologist at Similie, working on the data dashboards (credit: Similie)

The use of digital tools has not only made the process more efficient and accurate but has also made data collection possible during the global pandemic. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Government staff were unable to travel to other areas affected by the floods on 4 April. By setting up a call center and using KoBo Toolbox, NDOC was able to complete a national assessment of the flood supported by Similie.

“The use of technology to help with the assessments helped prevent a lot of issues that used to occur due to human error,” says Head of National Disaster Operation Center, Martinho Fatima.

This partnership has shown that using open-source digital tools can have a major impact on the efficiency and accuracy of decision making by governments when responding to natural disasters. Through this process, the Government has improved coordination, while protecting the privacy of personal information. Similie has worked with the Government in developing SoPs for post-disaster assessments, and how to include technology to make processes more efficient.


Feature photo: People stand under a bridge near one of the largest catchments in Dili while floodwaters rage past (credit: Similie)

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