Mark Quigley, The University of Melbourne; Andrew King, The University of Melbourne; Brendan Duffy, The University of Melbourne; Claire Vincent, The University of Melbourne; Ian Rutherfurd, The University of Melbourne; Januka Attanayake, The University of Melbourne, and Lisa Palmer, The University of MelbourneTimor-Leste is reeling after heavy rain caused severe floods and landslides over the Easter weekend, killing at least 42 people. Rates of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste are also on the rise. Together, these hazards threaten to interact with deadly consequences.
Our research has assessed the likelihood of natural hazards coinciding with, and influencing, the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, we found temporary relaxations of COVID-19 restrictions during natural disasters are likely to cause large spikes in infection rates.
In Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, the floods and the pandemic have combined to form a dangerous dynamic. Flood damage prompted authorities to temporarily lift COVID-19 restrictions. Evacuees are gathered in group shelters where social distancing may be challenging. Flooding cut power to some COVID treatment centres and put extra pressure on Timor-Leste’s health system.
The situation offers lessons for other populated, flood-prone cites battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Natural hazards will, of course, persist throughout the pandemic. Better understanding the complex interactions between double disasters will help societies and systems become more resilient.
Dili: a recipe for disaster
On April 3 and 4, more than 400mm of rain was recorded in Dili. Floodwater and debris washed into populated areas. Recent reports indicate at least 42 people died and 13,554 were displaced. Nearby Indonesian islands were also hit and at least 130 deaths were reported.
Several natural and human factors combine to make Timor Leste vulnerable to flooding.
The country’s mountainous topography (see image below) encourages rainfall and creates steep stream systems that rapidly transfer floodwater into adjacent populated areas. Weak rocks and steep catchments are highly susceptible to landslides.
Flowing water interacts with the mountains, causing sediment to accumulate in the shape of a fan or cone. This directs flood waters and sediment into central Dili. Also, rampant deforestation and development has increased soil erosion and stream discharge during heavy rain.
Rapid and largely uncoordinated population growth, particularly in Dili, has concentrated vulnerable populations into flood plains and low-elevation coastal areas highly exposed to flooding.
Other factors increasing the flood risk in Dili include:
- concrete structures that don’t allow water to sink into the ground
- multi-pylon concrete bridges that trap flood debris
- urban drainage channels choked with sediment and urban waste.
More broadly in the region, three climate features combined to create ideal conditions for the recent high rainfall and tropical storms: the West Pacific Monsoon, the Madden Julian Oscillation and a La Niña
The COVID combination
In late March this year, the number of new daily cases in Timor-Leste was rising quickly. On April 10, there were 70 new daily cases, bringing the total confirmed cases to more than 1,000.
Even without these twin disasters, many in Timor-Leste already lacked access to medical services and lived below the poverty line. COVID-19 restrictions exacerbated food shortages and poverty.
Then the floods hit. They left thousands homeless with severely restricted access to food and clean water. Roads and bridges collapsed. Crops were destroyed and firewood collection – essential for cooking – has been difficult in some areas.
The floods disrupted a COVID-19 lockdown in Dili, and forced people into crammed refuge centres. Flooding of a national medical storage facility damaged supplies. The national laboratory also flooded and a COVID-19 isolation facility was temporarily evacuated.
During floods, the risks of waterborne and vector-borne disease outbreaks increases. Should this occur, Timor-Leste’s fragile health system would be under even greater pressure.
The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Timor Leste on April 5 and the vaccination program has managed to operate despite the flood-related challenges.
A global problem
Many global cities are vulnerable to multiple interacting hazards like those now faced by Timor-Leste. Our analysis suggests 16 of the world’s 20 most populous cities, comprising 5% of the world’s population, have similar geology, population density and/or land use to Dili and could face similar multiple disasters. These cities include Jakarta, Tokyo and Manila.
In emergency situations, the need for disaster response and recovery may justify temporarily lifting COVID-19 restrictions. But pandemic measures must be reinstated as soon as possible. Our modelling, pictured below, suggests when COVID restrictions are lifted in response to a disaster, infection rates ascend rapidly.
What can be done?
Potential solutions are more likely to be effective when they involve multiple groups working together. This includes international and local experts, diverse support agencies and affected communities.
Our research identifies ways to improve disaster preparedness and response in a COVID-19 world. They include:
- developing scenarios and forecasts to deal with the interaction of multiple hazards, including COVID-19
- using centrally operating disaster coordination platforms to assist and empower local disaster responders
- evacuation centres that allow for social distancing
- storing supplies of personal protective gear and medical equipment in areas less exposed to natural hazards
- mobile teams of humanitarian workers, volunteers and medical staff that can respond to natural disasters in COVID-affected regions.
Finally, measures must be taken to reduce the risks posed by future disasters. This must be done in culturally informed ways and includes:
- improving land and water management
- land-use planning that considers disaster risk
- urban clean-up after events such as floods.
Such actions are crucial in developing nations such as Timor-Leste, where urban development can amplify natural hazards with tragic results.
Oktoviano Tilman de Jesus, Demetrio Amaral Carvalho and Josh Trindade contributed invaluable expertise to this work.
This article is part of Conversation series on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. Read the rest of the stories here.
Mark Quigley, Associate Professor of Earthquake Science, The University of Melbourne; Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, The University of Melbourne; Brendan Duffy, Fellow in Structural Geology and Tectonics, The University of Melbourne; Claire Vincent, Lecturer in Atmospheric Science, The University of Melbourne; Ian Rutherfurd, Professor in Geography, The University of Melbourne; Januka Attanayake, Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne, and Lisa Palmer, Associate Professor, School of Geography, The University of Melbourne
Sabrina Pit, Western Sydney UniversityYet again, large swathes of New South Wales are underwater. A week of solid rain has led to floods in the Mid-North Coast, Sydney and the Central Coast, with several areas being evacuated as I write.
As a resident of the NSW Far North Coast, which has had its share of devastating floods, many of the tense scenes on the news are sadly familiar.
Unless you have lived through it, it is hard to understand just how stressful a catastrophic flood can be in the moment of crisis. As research evidence shows, the long term impact on mental health can also be profound. And often it is the most disadvantaged populations that are hardest hit.
Disaster risk and disadvantage
In many places, socio-economic disadvantage and flood risk go hand in hand.
In a study published last year, led by the University Centre for Rural Health in Lismore in close collaboration with the local community, colleagues and I looked at population data following Cyclone Debbie in 2017. We found people living in the Lismore town centre flood footprint experienced significantly higher levels of social vulnerability (when compared to the already highly vulnerable regional population). This study would not have been possible without the support of the Northern Rivers community who responded to the Community Recovery
after Flood survey, nor without the active support, enthusiasm and commitment of the Community Advisory Groups in Lismore and Murwillumbah and community organisations.
Notably, over 80% of people in the 2017 Lismore town centre flood-affected area were living in the lowest socio-economic neighbourhoods. The flood-affected areas of Murwillumbah and Lismore regions included 47% and 60% of residents in the most disadvantaged quintile neighbourhoods.
By examining data from the 45 and Up study, we also showed that participants living in the Lismore town centre flood footprint had significantly higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption. They were also more likely to have pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as poorer general health.
So even before disaster strikes, residents in flood-prone areas may be more likely to battle with financial and health issues. Our study showed disaster affected people also had the fewest resources to recover effectively. When floods arrive, the impact on mental health, in particular, can be acute.
Floods and mental health
A flood can be extremely stressful in the moment, as one rushes to protect people, property, pets and animals and worries about the damage that may follow. Can you imagine clinging to a rooftop in the rain in the middle of the night and waiting to be rescued?
The damage caused by floods causes enormous financial pain, and can lead to housing vulnerabilities and homelessness, especially for those without insurance — and research reveals a pattern of underinsurance in disadvantaged populations across Australia.
Even if you are lucky enough to have insurance, waiting to have your claim assessed and approved, then dealing with a shortage of tradies can take a real toll on your mental health. The waiting and the uncertainty can be especially hard.
Other flood research by colleagues and I, led by the University Centre for Rural Health, showed business owners whose homes and businesses had flooded were almost 6.5 times more likely to report depressive symptoms. Business owners with insurance disputes were four times more likely to report probable depression.
Flood affected business owners whose income didn’t return to normal within six months were also almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression.
Lack of income can clearly cause stress for the individual, their family and their larger network. Small businesses play an important role in rural communities and employ a large number of people so the sustainability of local businesses is crucial.
We also found the higher the floodwater was in a person’s business, the more likely the person was to experience depressive symptoms.
People whose business had water above head height in their entire business were four times more likely to report depressive symptoms. Those who had water between knee and head height in their business were almost three times more likely to report probable depression. All this adds up to an increase in mental health issues that often follows a flood.
Six months after the flooding, business owners felt most supported by their local community such as volunteers and neighbours. However, those that felt their needs were not met by the state government and insurance companies were almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression.
Preparedness and awareness
So, what can be done?
Firstly, we can boost preparedness. Risk and preparedness education may be especially needed for people who have recently moved to flood-prone regions. Many who have moved to regional areas recently may not be aware they live in a flood zone, or understand how fast waters can move and how high they can reach. Education is needed to raise awareness about the dangers. People may need help to prepare a flood plan and know when to leave.
Secondly, supporting people and local businesses after a disaster and assisting the local economy in its recovery could help reduce the mental health burden on people and the business community.
Thirdly, mental health services must be provided. A chaplaincy program was implemented in Lismore by the local government to assist business owners with emotional and psychological support after Cyclone Debbie and ensuing floods. This program was largely well received by business owners for having provided psychological support and raising mental health awareness.
However, the ongoing lack of mental health support remains an issue, especially in rural areas, and is exacerbated by disasters.
Fourthly, insurance disputes and rejection of insurance claims were among the strongest associations with likely depression in our research. We must find ways to improve the insurance process including making it more affordable, improving communication, by making claims easier and faster and boosting people’s understanding of what’s included and excluded from their policy.
No single organisation, government or department can solve these complex problems on their own. Strong partnerships between organisations are crucial and have been shown to work, as is direct and real-time support for flood-affected people.
This story was updated to add more detail about the author’s research funding, collaborative partners and affiliation. It is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
The finger of blame for the Beirut explosion is pointing at Lebanon’s corrupt and criminally negligent political leadership. Amid continuing protests, the government of prime minister Hassan Diab resigned on August 10, though ministers will stay on in a caretaker role until a new cabinet is formed.
The international community has pledged aid to Lebanon’s government in exchange for political reform. But this stance requires a reversal of the international community’s existing role in Lebanon – and its complicity in the survival of the regime.
Lebanon’s power-sharing system, which sustains sectarianism and thrives on corruption, is propped up by international powers. Rather than promote meaningful reform, countries such as France, the US and the UK have historically viewed power-sharing as a stabilising force.
Based on a 1943 National Pact, Lebanon’s power-sharing formula allocates political offices along sectarian lines, including between Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shia factions. This undermines meritocracy and encourages polarisation.
Still, power-sharing in Lebanon is not a reflection of ancient sectarian hatreds. It is largely the product of the French Mandate between 1923 and 1943, which cemented sectarianism in public life. So it was ironic that when the French president, Emmanuel Macron, arrived in Beirut in the aftermath of the explosions, he called for a new pact for Lebanon in the guise of a National Unity Government.
When Lebanese power-sharing was revised to end the civil war in 1989, international actors were again involved. As a reward for joining an anti-Iraqi coalition led by the US, the international community gave Syria the green light to act as Lebanon’s guardian.
Myths of stabilisation and resilience
Lebanon is inappropriately imagined as the Switzerland of the Middle East, a place where multiple religious groups coexist and a veneer of cosmopolitanism reigns. Any attempt to transform power-sharing is resisted by warlord elites. Reforms such as phasing out sectarian appointments have been frowned upon by political leaders on the basis that they would lead to the terrifying violence seen in neighbouring countries.
The international community often frames Lebanon’s political system as the lesser evil in the context of autocratic fortresses in the neighbourhood. Rather than helping the country move to end political sectarianism, as Lebanon’s post-war peace accord stipulates, power-sharing has become an invasive species, colonising the state.
In an attempt to shield itself from the blowback effects of the Arab Spring, the international community has shifted away from policies aimed at deepening democracy in the Middle East to those of pragmatic realism. Stabilisation rather than change is the goal.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has received more than a million displaced Syrians since the civil war began in 2011. While Lebanon initially adopted an open-border policy towards Syrians fleeing violence, it closed its borders in 2014, cracking down on the livelihoods and rights of displaced people. Yet the international community has lauded Lebanon’s so-called hospitality, portraying it as a pivotal actor in the international refugee regime.
Lebanese politicians leverage the state’s value as a refugee host, warning that any destabilisation of Lebanon would trigger waves of refugees to Europe. The EU has closely cooperated with Lebanon’s governing elite since 2012 to build resilience, in programmes aimed at empowering refugee and host communities.
But the EU’s resilience-building rhetoric conceals accumulated vulnerabilities, injustices and political abnormalities. In response, civil society activists and analysts have cautioned against the EU’s cooperation with Lebanon’s corrupt elite. The false allure of regional stabilisation only consolidates elite power, rather than addressing the needs of citizens and refugees.
Lebanon’s crises have multiplied in recent years. In 2015, a massive garbage crisis epitomised the decline of public services and rising corruption. Yet, in April 2018, the international community used the Cedre Conference to pledge more than US$11 billion to strengthen and develop the Lebanese state.
Back then, the Lebanese government presented “a vision for stabilisation, growth and employment”. In return, the international community called for a follow-up mechanism to track reforms as a condition to unlock pledged grants and loans. Yet, the international community’s call for reforms remained ineffectual and couched in vague terms – and the follow-up mechanism never materialised.
In October 2019, Lebanon’s political leaders faced unprecedented protests demanding the dismantling of sectarian institutions. International powers vowed not to funnel aid to the Lebanese government unless it embarked on radical reforms.
The August 4 blast, however, imposed new realities in the architecture of international aid to Lebanon. Transformed into a site for post-disaster restructuring, Lebanon needs urgent aid. On August 9, France co-hosted an international conference that pledged US$300 million for humanitarian relief and reconstruction.
A new chance
The international community must ensure that this aid does not prop up defunct institutions and inept sectarian leaders.
Myths of stabilisation and resilience-building during overlapping crises have double-edged consequences for Lebanon. By not engaging with the roots of dispossession and conflicts, international powers promote short-term versions of resilience, stability and humanitarian protection. This papers over dysfunctional institutions and deteriorating livelihoods.
Such recipes are counterproductive. Rather than encouraging citizen resilience, they consolidate the robustness of political leaders who feel empowered enough to tread on their citizens’ suffering and hopes.
Only the Lebanese can cast off their own warlords and kleptocrats through new elections and a homegrown political system that strengthens the rule of law and weakens the grip of patronage and sectarian identities on state institutions. Yet the international community can help – by refraining from bolstering and legitimising their rule.