Investigating environmental impact in Cox’s Bazar
It has been almost 2 years since the arrival of the Rohingya people in Bangladesh. In late August 2017, more than 745,000 forcibly displaced Rohingya people from Myanmar took refuge in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The settlement process in the first few months were unplanned near the roadside forest areas of Ukhiya and Teknaf. The settlement and resettlement process cost 20,000 hectares (around 49,500 acres) of forests alone.
Over the past two years, the population grew rapidly, estimating a current population of around 912,000. The crisis has turned from an emergency response to a long-term protracted crisis in nature. Adverse and irreversible impacts on land, water, air and overall ecosystem of the country due to the crisis impacted the life and livelihood of the people living in the area and beyond.
A recent report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) supported by UNDP and UN Women identified eleven environmental impacts that have been or could potentially be exacerbated by the Rohingya influx. Six of these were physical environmental impacts.
Ground water, surface water and aquatic level: In a 2018 study, ICDDR,B and UNICEF reported that some 192 people has access to one water point. This results in the contamination of major water sources and requires immediate measures to decontaminate. Furthermore, due to excessive extraction, water table has gone down as alternatives provided so far has failed to meet the ongoing needs of the community.
Indoor air quality: Due to excessive heat and cooking indoors, the indoor air quality was found to be hazardous in number of occasions. Furthermore, winter, the dust and smog causes respiratory problems for both the Rohingya community and the aid workers traveling everyday to the camps.
Solid waste: The UNICEF and ICDDR,B study also found that an average of 24 people are using one toilet. With 290,000 population density per square kilometer, solid waste management remains one of the key challenges and impacting the environment especially on water and air quality.
Soils and terrain: Due to mass deforestation and constant construction for rehabilitation, soil and terrain are degrading regularly.
The remaining five are impacts on ecosystems
Natural forests: The refugee camps are currently occupying 1,625 acres of forestland in Ukhiya and 875 acres of forestland in Teknaf. However, the forest section that has been damaged due to the influx needs decades to restore.
Protected areas and critical habitats: The forest protected areas are critically damaged due to deforestation as well as human interventions that also displaced critical habitats in the area.
Vegetation: Vegetation that protects the soil and terrain as well as support micro ecosystem are damaged. This also leads to potential landslides.
Wildlife: Wild elephants are being hindered in their movement because of the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazzar, which have been built on their natural habitat and roaming grounds. The elephants have thus been attacking the camps, killing several refugees. According to a survey by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), since August 2017, at least 12 people have been killed by wild elephants.
Marine and freshwater ecosystems: This links with the solid human waste. Every day about a million people are defecating and throwing wastes that is contaminating both marine and freshwater ecosystem.
The report also ranks the risks as high and low. Groundwater depletion; groundwater contamination; poor indoor air quality; poor management of sewer sludge; removal of soils and terrain; and changes in terrain and impacts on ecosystems overall at high risk category.
The agencies working in Rohingya response realized that it is critical to protect the micro environment and its ecosystem as precondition to disaster management in the camp areas as well as protect biodiversity and livelihoods of both host communities and Rohingya communities. The Government of Bangladesh therefore emphasized on restoration of forests by mass tree plantation. The UN agencies and I/NGOs have been working on a number of different aspects such as disaster management, construction of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) block, waste management including sludge management plants. Some interventions focus on both environmental protection and security issues particularly of women and young girls – such as solar street lamps and installation of Bondhu Chula (environment friendly cooking stoves) and Compact Rice Husk as an alternative cooking fuel.
In recent days, homestead gardening in the camps are becoming popular in order to protect the environment. Some of the innovation includes community based and young people led awareness sessions through interactive theater and camp cleaning in camp site management activities. Number of organisations are also doing slope management as well as plantation of vetiver grass for slope protection continued both for environmental protection and disaster risk reduction.
While the interventions have resulted in short-term impact such as reduction of risk of disasters, protection from landslides, reduction in exploitation of forest resources, the growing population and their long-term demand remains the key concern for environmental protection. Unless there is a permanent solution to the crisis (considering repatriation will take a long time) to some of the basic needs, environmental degradation will continue. ActionAid’s campsite management experience suggests that solid waste and garbage management remains the key challenge. Lack of awareness of health and safety within the Rohingya community remains a challenge in establishing a community led environmental protection action.
Considering the present situation, existing challenges and opportunities to improve the situation, it is critical to have a long-term strategy and action plan for the entire Cox’s Bazar focusing environment protection and forest restoration. Furthermore, some key actions must be taken in the short term to long term such as:
Immediate Actions: Stopping deforestation completely should be the first step. Introduce alternative fuel for cooking and energy. Also, it is critical to find alternate water sources. Couple of water desalination plants are installed in the camp area; however those are very costly as well as inadequate considering the need of the community. Agencies should consider solar based solutions of using surface water.
Short term actions: Rainwater harvesting as well as community-based waste management (including sludge management) is one of the key actions that need to be led by the government. This will require land use planning which also links with afforestation in the area. It is observed that plastic remains one of the key components of the waste that needs to be reduced as well as recycled. Importantly, it is critical to set up an environmental monitoring mechanism across the camps and overall Cox’s Bazar.
Mid-term actions: In mid-term, government and other actors must work towards reducing health hazards through interventions that also contribute in reducing stress on the environment. Such actions can include alternative fuel such as solar based cooking stove for communities as well as improving soil condition through mass plantation at community and household level. One crosscutting mitigation measure to address the physical impacts of the influx is to provide alternative fuel and cooking stoves and/or a dedicated space for community cooking. This would improve air quality in the shelters, eliminate the need for fuelwood collection from forests and protected areas, and remove the associated gender-based health and safety risks.
Bamboo is one of the most used materials in the camps. It is critical to look at sources of bamboo in longer term. Bamboo cultivation can be promoted as one of the livelihood options in camp areas and other parts of Bangladesh.
Current experience in managing influxes shows that at the stage when asylum seekers become repatriated or integrated, funds are scarce for the closure and reclamation of the abandoned camps and associated facilities for the reforestation of degraded lands and the conservation of wildlife habitat. Sufficient resources need to be secured to ensure that reinstatement of the land is adequately supported after the Rohingya repatriation.
Long term actions: In the long term, the solutions lie within both programmatic and policy interventions. While the Government of Bangladesh and humanitarian actors are working towards the above and finding a solution, it is important to look into policy level solutions from local to global level to address the problem including the environmental issues. It is important to consider the impact of climate change in the coming days. A recent report by the World Bank suggests that from 3 climate impacted hot-spots - Africa, Latin America and Asia, around 130-140 million people will be migrating in next 30 to 40 years. At least 10% of people will be from South Asia. The coastal region will suffer migration the most.
Lastly, though the influx is not due to climate change however, the degradation of the environment caused by the crisis will by and large contribute to climate change in a number of ways. Furthermore, this can work as a case for the climate migration on how to address some of the migration that will take place in the near future.
Farah Kabir is the County Director of AA Bangladesh. She is a human rights activist with strong focus on women's rights and youth leadership
Abdul Alim is the Head of Humanitarian Response of AA Bangladesh.
Tanjir Hossain is the Lead - Resilience and Climate Justice of AA Bangladesh.