In Rohingya camps, monsoon threatens hard-won WASH progress

Women pump water in Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Chittagong district, Bangladesh. Photo by: Allison Joyce / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — Sporadic rain during the past two weeks have provided a foreboding preview of complications to come for the vast Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Multiple vehicles in Cox’s Bazar were trapped by mud after a recent downpour that lasted just an hour. “People started frantically laying bricks to help to get the cars moving. A tree was blown down across the road at another point, and there were reports of minor flooding and damage to Rohingya shelters,” reported Oxfam’s Rohingya Response Advocacy Manager Dorothy Sang in a written statement.

Aid groups race against Bangladesh's looming monsoons

Bangladesh's approaching cyclone season poses an "emergency within an emergency" for groups working to aid nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar.

Though preparation for monsoon season has been underway for months, the process is hindered by the overwhelming number of flimsy shelters and hastily constructed latrines serving nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees.

The coastal refugee camp lies on sloped, barren land near the border of Myanmar, from which they began fleeing en masse in August amid widespread violence. More than 100,000 Rohingya refugees are living in shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin in areas likely to be damaged by floods and landslides, according to a January risk analysis conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, REACH, and the Asia Disaster Preparedness Center.

Water, sanitation, and hygiene experts in the camps are particularly worried about accessing latrines to continue to safely clean them, and the ensuing risk of contamination should waters rise and latrines overflow. The same U.N.-led 2018 risk analysis estimates that floods and landslides could damage one-quarter of washrooms and latrines in the main camp and nearly half of the current sources of tube well water.

Although WASH operations in the sprawling camps remain far from ideal, the past six months have seen hard-won progress in the form of a decentralized coordination structure with different agencies accountable for water and sanitation in zoned areas — an improvement from initial confusion over managing thousands of emergency pit latrines that were filling up in as little as one week.

Now, it’s taking nearly two months for many latrines to fill in the zones his team is responsible for, said Kenny Hamilton, current team leader for the British Red Cross’ Mass Sanitation Management Emergency Response Unit. Even though far too few, there are also currently more than 70 small-, medium-, and large-scale fecal sludge management sites drawing on various technologies throughout the camps, according to Abu Naim Shafiullah Talukder, WASH program manager and sector coordinator at Action Contre la Faim.

Oxfam, for example, is in the process of building a large fecal sludge treatment plant that aims to treat the waste from 100,000 refugees; constructing new, longer lasting pit-latrine toilets; and building deep tube wells to access deeper groundwater less likely to be polluted.

This slow progress is threatened by what is expected to be days of continuous rain from June to September. The impending monsoon season has aid workers scrambling to desludge and decommission nearly 30,000 latrines in the farthest-flung sites, and those at most risk of becoming unusable before the rains hit, as well as penning contingency plans for situations where areas of the camps may become inaccessible due to landslides or flooding.

In Ukhia megacamp, the biggest of the makeshift camps, up to a third of the land could be flooded, leaving more than 85,000 refugees homeless, according to the joint risk assessment.

Porters from the community currently carry barrels full of sludge by hand to a British Red Cross-run fecal sludge management site, which treats around 3,000 liters of human waste every day. The waste is treated with lime and laid out in treatment beds to evaporate, and the remainder is then burned or buried. The facility hasn’t yet reached capacity, and the team hopes to continue treating increasing quantities of sludge, according to British Red Cross’ Hamilton.

But this labor-intensive process will likely become impossible when rains turn pathways into muddy pits and physical access becomes more constrained, Hamilton said. In that case, the team will move to onsite treatment, desludging latrines in the community and treating them with lime there, then finding a safe area to bury the fecal waste. “It’s not our ideal response,” he clarified.

As his team works to reinforce embankments surrounding the site, they remain unsure of how water will enter surrounding culverts and canals — or which direction it will travel in.

“The camps have expanded so quickly that we’ve never tested how heavy rainfall will impact the canal system that’s there,” Hamilton said. “We’ve done a lot of reinforcement of embankments next to our site, and we kind of went with the direction we think would have the most impact on us if we didn’t reinforce. But we’re waiting to see how the water will impact it once it comes.”

In the meantime, water contamination is a “long-lasting issue from the beginning of the crisis,” ACF’s Talukder said. Regular water-quality testing and decontamination of water points continues, while household level water treatment is being rolled out in different targeted areas.

“More than 30 million water purification tablets, and five mobile water treatment plants are [on] standby to respond the upcoming disaster,” Talukder said, adding that an additional 30 million tablets are in the pipeline.

Still, the largest risk of heavy flooding is that it will increase the spread of disease within the incredibly high-density population, where “poor nutrition in the camps has made the spread of disease faster,” according to Mohammad Ishaq Altaib Juma, BRAC’s WASH sector lead specialist.

A WASH assessment conducted by IOM in the Kutupalong-Balukhali expansion site found 30 percent of latrines have been constructed at a distance of fewer than 10 meters from tube wells, which increases the risk of fecal contamination of water sources. Cases of acute watery diarrhea are already likely to spike during monsoon season, while stagnant water can serve as a mosquito breeding ground, increasing the risk of vector-borne diseases.

BRAC has prepared a buffer stock of medicinal supplies to serve an initial 5,000 people in the first line of response if outbreaks of diarrheal disease, dysentery, water borne diseases or typhoid occur, according to Communications and External Relations Management Team Lead Nafeesa Shamsuddin. The group has also established “oral rehydration therapy corners” in their primary health care centers, and prepared three mobile medical teams to be ready to deal with upcoming events.

In an attempt to prevent water-borne disease outbreaks, Oxfam is training Rohingya refugees in how to clean pit-latrine toilets, hand washing, and general sanitation practices, as well as providing hygiene kits with resources such as soap, buckets, and sanitary napkins, Sang told Devex.

“Over the next few months, the Rohingya will be on the front line of responding to these further emergencies, and Oxfam is helping them learn how to protect themselves and their families,” Sang said in a written statement.

But questions and concerns in the camp extend beyond the next few months of heavy rain and the potential destruction they will bring: “It’s the question everyone is asking: How long will the camps be camps?” Hamilton said. “Who takes on the longer term sludge management and other sanitation needs? Agencies, I don’t think can do this forever. Most of us are planning until the end of the year with the view that we’ll also look at contingency beyond that, but there really is a longer term view that needs to be taken.”

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, 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 since reported from more than 20 countries.