BANGKOK — Severe weather could further devastate an already dire situation in Cox’s Bazar, where aid groups are scrambling to better prepare the overcrowded, hilly Rohingya refugee settlements for flooding and landslides.
As Bangladesh nears cyclone season, which will see heavy rain and high wind tear out of the Bay of Bengal from March through July, the humanitarian response in the world’s largest refugee camp could quickly turn from immense challenge to catastrophe, aid groups warn.
“We are facing a major humanitarian emergency within a major humanitarian emergency,” Daphnee Cook, Save the Children’s communications and media manager for the Rohingya response, told Devex. “We know that the weather will wreak havoc, the question is one of degrees of damage.”
See more Devex coverage of the Rohingya crisis:
Because the country experiences two cyclone seasons every year, the government of Bangladesh is experienced in cyclone response and is working with the Inter Sector Coordination Group to extend its preparedness program to cover the refugee settlements, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But cyclone response plans usually hinge on the establishment of community shelters and evacuation points — two aspects that will be impossible to provide for 1 million Rohingya refugees due to the highly congested site, said Caroline Gluck, UNHCR senior public information officer deployed to Cox’s Bazar.
Instead, “It is a race against time to try to mitigate some of the likely impacts,” Gluck said of the emergency preparedness group that’s been established to coordinate efforts.
Already, UNHCR has distributed around 30,000 upgraded shelter kits, which include bamboo, extra tarpaulin, string, rope, wire, and nails to be used to enforce and attempt to waterproof individual shelters, while sandbags are being used as anchors.
But more major earthworks and relocation will be necessary ahead of heavy rain in order to better protect the nearly 700,000 refugees who have fled violence in Myanmar since August, Save the Children’s Cook said: “We know that within 24 hours of a deluge, roads in the camps can turn to mud, while hills stripped of vegetation — now covered with huts made of bamboo and plastic — are highly susceptible to landslides,” she said.
An initial mapping survey conducted by UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, REACH, and the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center estimated that 371 households in the largest camp — Kutapalong-Bulakhali settlement — are living on slopes of 45 degrees or more, which are 85 percent more likely to disappear in a landslide.
The same landslide and flood risk hazard mapping revealed that at least 100,000 people in Kutapalong-Balukhali are in grave danger from associated risks and require relocation to new areas or within current neighborhoods, according to the most recent ISCG Situation Report.
With evacuation currently out of the question, UNHCR will soon start a pilot project to relocate up to 20 families at a time, while work is carried out to reduce the slope steepness where they were initially living. Families would then be relocated back to their original areas. Bangladesh-based NGO BRAC, too, is looking to implement a pilot project in one of the zones it supports, where about 100 families will be shifted in order to level and raise the existing land, then relocated back.
Aside from large-scale mechanized work, there is still more engineering to be done throughout the camps, such as ensuring drainage systems are repaired and cleaned to allow free flow of surface rain water, building stairs and railings to ensure people can walk even when it’s wet, and reinforcing retaining walls for soil stabilization.
Despite ongoing and increasingly hurried preparation, the mounting fear is that severe weather will also exacerbate existing problems, according to Roberts Sila Muthini, site manager for BRAC’s humanitarian crisis management program.
Many shelters and WASH facilities have been constructed in vulnerable areas, deep in valleys or high on cliffs, while other key services like tube wells and health centers are also at risk of washing away. Lack of land and severe congestion has continued to hamper solid waste management and overall garbage collection and disposal, all of which “have a bearing to monsoon preparedness because there is a danger of contamination if solid waste [or] garbage mixes and is washed away by water into muddy fields,” Muthini said.
Health professionals, having just battled an outbreak of diphtheria, are particularly concerned about the potential for the spread of waterborne diseases in the event of heavy flooding.
In the meantime, early warning systems are being put in place, with public information campaigns underway to alert the refugee populations about likely risks — a challenge compounded by a population with no previous experience of landslides, having largely fled from low-lying plains in Myanmar’s Maungdaw area of Rakhine state.
The Communications with Communities group is working with other sectors to coordinate content using door-to-door mobilizers and signage, and IOM is distributing radios to facilitate the wider sharing of recommended safety measures — such as identifying high points where people can seek safety during flooding, and encouraging people to make contingency plans with relatives and friends whose shelters are in more secure places and who can help share accommodation in emergency situations, according to IOM Communications Officer Fiona MacGregor.
Still, in a camp where access remains a top challenge in providing basic care, “competing priorities, such as service provision at the moment, have not been adequately addressed, and as such, little time has been prioritized for disaster preparedness,” BRAC’s Muthini said.
Read more Devex coverage on the Rohingya crisis.