Low-tech, cheap, but effective: protecting Terejinha’s home from a swelling river

Above: Terejinha standing behind the locally-constructed gabion in front of her house. Photo: Oxfam in Timor-Leste.

Terejinha, a grandmother living in Usitasae village in Timor-Leste’s Oecusse region, would worry about the river near her home every wet season, wondering if it might sweep away her modest two-bedroom dwelling and everything in it.

“My house is very close to the river. It’s like five steps away,” Terejinha said. “So it’s very risky during the rainy season.”

But that was before she met with members of Timor-based organisations working with the Australian Humanitarian Partnership’s Disaster READY program.

Their solution was low-tech, inexpensive and – best of all – effective: gabion baskets made from bamboo and filled with rocks, designed to create a buffer between the raging river and her home.

“Now we feel safer with the gabions we built using local materials,” she said.

Terejinha was approached by members of a non-government organisation called Binibu Faef Nome, known as BIFANO. The group was working with Oxfam through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership, an Australian Government programme designed to improve the capacity of communities in countries such as Timor-Leste to cope when the worst happens by strengthening disaster preparedness.

The grandmother was the perfect example of someone at risk from natural disasters but who, with a little help, could find herself in a much more resilient position.

BIFANO coordinated with the local District Disaster Management Committee to come up with the suggestion to build the gabion baskets.

This method of building a cage and filling it with rocks and similar material has been used to create flood barriers and retaining walls since the days of Leonardo da Vinci.

Above: Terejinha speaking to Oxfam staff about the impact of the gabion on her sense of security. Photo: Oxfam in Timor-Leste.

The Timor-Leste version suggested by BIFANO involved bamboo posts formed into a mesh, which was then filled with large river stones. All the materials could be sourced locally for free.

Once BIFANO suggested the solution, local villagers banded together to supply the labour to bring it to fruition and allow this grandmother to sleep a little easier at night.

Terejinha was very excited to see the barrier created between the river and her home, which is constructed from sapling trunks and sheets of corrugated iron.

The barrier won’t stop a major flood, but it will be enough to cope with the kinds of flows produced during most rainy seasons.

Identifying ways in which communities can be made more resilient is one of the primary goals of Australian Humanitarian Partnership, which is moving into a second five-year phase of working with local partners and Australian NGOs to strengthen disaster preparedness and response.

Their work in Timor-Leste through the Disaster READY program has ranged from physical barriers, such as the one at Terejinha’s home, to improved drinking water sources so families can spend less time gathering water each day, are less vulnerable to drought, and can grow surplus vegetables to sell at market. Other interventions have included improving sanitation to reduce the risk of communicable diseases such as COVID-19.