Rohingya refugees participate in a community-based disaster preparedness program at the  Kutupalong-Balukhali mega camp. Photo: Brad Zerivitz / American Red Cross

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Children who were playing soccer just minutes before now lay sprawled on the ground, knocked down by gale force winds. Several adults, equipped with first aid kits and bearing grim expressions, rush to their assistance and begin tending to the injured.

But it’s scorching hot, the sky shimmering and still rather than dark with storm clouds. And the kids are giggling — a few of them grinning and poking one another as the volunteers bandage imaginary wounds and help them limp back to shelters on uninjured legs.

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Join us on the ground in Bangladesh, where we explore the disaster-response effort that could help 1 million Rohingya refugees survive the lengthy monsoon season.

This dusty clearing in Bangladesh’s sprawling Kutupalong-Balukhali mega camp is often used for food distribution. Today, the space is crowded with children, teens, and adults participating in a simulation for the country’s disaster preparedness program, the first of many to prepare Rohingya refugees for the severe weather that rips through this landscape during two cyclone seasons each year.

Bangladesh, one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, credits its community-led Cyclone Preparedness Program for saving hundreds of thousands of lives since its creation in the 1970s. Now, aid groups hope the same strategy can help vulnerable refugees survive a dangerous monsoon season inside bamboo and tarpaulin shelters.

Once home to about 500,000 people, the undulating land south of Bangladesh’s beloved beachside town of Cox’s Bazar now hosts over 1 million Rohingya who have fled persecution and violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Nearly 700,000 refugees have arrived since a military clearance operation in August 2017, settling in once-forested regions of Ukhia and Teknaf.

Aid groups have worked for months to help refugees prepare their overcrowded, hilly settlements for severe weather. Trucks loaded with bamboo speed toward the camps to help reinforce clinics and shelters. Stones, wood, and trash piled on tarpaulin roofs offer meager support to secure thin sheets in an ongoing battle against strong winds. Stripped of vegetation and devoid of proper drainage, the ground has become a magnet for landslides and flooding.

Already, heavy rainfall in early June battered flimsy shelters and caused more than 100 landslides throughout the camps. The International Organization for Migration, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and other groups have relocated more than 30,000 at-risk refugees to safer areas — but available land is scarce, and IOM will be asking the government for more space for the estimated 200,000 refugees whose shelters remain at high risk of landslides and flooding, George Gigauri, IOM’s new chief of mission in Bangladesh, told Devex in Cox’s Bazar.

In the meantime, aid groups are also seeking severe storm preparation advice from Bangladesh — a country once regularly devastated by severe weather, that has since emerged as a leader in early warning systems.

In June, teams from CPP, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, and the American Red Cross began training refugees in the country’s community-based disaster preparedness program.  

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.