Published by reliefweb on March 19, 2018
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- We travelled to Bangladesh in early March 2018 as part of our inquiry into DFID’s work in Bangladesh and Burma1 commenced in October 2017.2
- As part of the programme, we visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar to follow-up on our interim report on that crisis (published in January 20183). The scale of the displacement, the provision made by the Bangladesh authorities and the efforts of the various international agencies, NGOs and other organisations, have to be experienced at first hand to be fully appreciated.4
A new crisis
- However, during discussions in the camps and afterwards, it became clear that a second challenge was fast approaching with the potential to derail, if not utterly negate, all the painful progress made in offering the displaced Rohingya refugees a measure of sanctuary, safety and hope. The matters raised were of such urgency that we felt a further interim report was required without delay.
- While in Bangladesh, we heard grave and convincing concerns from many quarters that a substantial proportion of the Rohingya refugees’ accommodation was extremely vulnerable to the heavy rainfall that the imminent monsoon season would bring. Without decisions and action being taken very quickly to enable relocation to begin — and to facilitate other mitigations — people were going to die.
Extreme weather: heavy rain, storms, cyclones
- The location, distribution and conditions of the Rohingya refugees’ camps and accommodation make them extremely vulnerable to the expected volumes of rainfall forecast for the 2018 wet weather, or ‘monsoon’, season and to the tropical storms and cyclones that are also a severe threat over the coming months. We were told that there were very serious risks of death, destruction and disease arising directly from flooding as well as consequent landslides and the escape of sewage and other forms of waste into a water-logged environment. These risks are estimated to affect some 230,000 Rohingya refugees.5 With around 500 Rohingya still arriving each week into the Cox’s Bazar district, the population under threat is constantly increasing.
- This issue is extremely urgent for the simple reason that, at the time of writing, it is already mid-March and persistent rain is expected to begin in Cox’s Bazar in April until October with very heavy rainfall in June, July and August. Cox’s Bazar is expected to experience over two and a half metres of rainfall during these three months alone –average annual rainfall in the UK as a whole is 885 mm.
- Conditions and factors in the Rohingya refugee camps which were described to us as creating, or aggravating, weather-related threats and risks included:• the location of the camps in an area which experiences strong winds and cyclones without the benefit of the evacuation systems and cyclone shelters that have worked effectively for the Bangladeshi population but do not have capacity for the refugees
• restrictions on the use of durable materials, coupled with the sheer weight of demand, which have prevented the construction of new emergency shelters and led to the siting of structurally poor accommodation on hilltops and slopes offering limited protection from wind and wind-born debris
• deforestation for fuel which has denuded the landscape and the consequent loss of binding root growth which has exacerbated the structural weakness of the sand and silt-based terrain, increasing the refugees’ vulnerability to mud and landslides
• the sheer size, topography and population density of the Rohingya refugee camps — plus the inhabitants’ previous lack of access to effective health care, in particular vaccinations — which have already created conditions ripe for a public health disaster (diphtheria has already appeared7), and
• the inevitable overwhelming of temporary sanitation arrangements by heavy rainfall, resulting in the environment being flooded by sewage, creating new vectors for the spread of contagious diseases.
- We were told that the window of opportunity for establishing risk reduction and preparedness measures is closing. As the table above demonstrates, the time remaining until the rains start in earnest could be a matter of days. This in itself will hamper any efforts to take the steps necessary to prepare for the genuine deluges expected to start within two and half months.
- In addition to the challenge of taking action once the rainy season has started, a number of substantial other obstacles and barriers to reducing the level of hazard, threat and risk for the Rohingya were drawn to our attention. • The lack of access to sufficient suitable land was a key issue, with the obvious response being the immediate relocation of the most exposed or vulnerable people to other sites away from dangerous slopes and riverbeds. • There was, however, a consensus amongst the wide range of credible representatives we spoke to that that identifying suitable alternative land was not the issue so much as the granting, by the Bangladesh authorities, of access to it. • DFID, the UN agencies and others argued that key implementing partners, such as the NGOs, could not be operationally effective without being able to secure appropriate visas from the Bangladesh authorities which permitted sufficient access and for feasible periods of time