The indiscriminate cutting of hills and trees to relocate the displaced Rohingya refugees in Ukhiya upazila of Cox’s Bazar poses a severe environmental threat to local communities, experts have warned.
More than 10,000 acres of forest land have already been taken over, while over a hundred hills have been levelled to arrange shelter for upwards of one million displaced refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, according to local sources.
While every year Bangladesh faces a number of natural disasters such as cyclones, drought, mudslides, floods and storm surges, the rampant hill cutting will disrupt the already fragile ecological balance in the region.
Experts are now warning of an impending environmental crisis.
“The ecosystem of this region has been totally damaged as the Rohingya refugees have built homes cutting down trees and hills,” Prof Ainun Nishat, a Bangladesh-based eminent environmentalist, told the Dhaka Tribune.
“This is a massive, irreparable loss for Bangladesh. Small waterfalls that used to be the sources of water for locals have already dried out. Surface water has already gotten polluted.
“The indiscriminate hill cutting will add additional silt to the streams and cause waterlogging and floods. Such activities will leave adverse effects on the country.”
A professor emeritus at Brac University, Nishat also said mudslides were already a very common phenomenon in the country’s hill districts, causing scores of deaths and injuring countless others.
“Landslides have already started in this region (so) when the monsoon starts hitting severely between July and August, the situation might get even worse as the formation of soil has already been changed due to the random cutting of hills,” he said.
Since thousands of Rohingya families have been living in makeshift shanties on the vulnerable hill slopes, initiatives have been taken by different local and international non-government organizations (NGOs) to shift them to safer ground.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), United Nation Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), World Food Program (WFP), Oxfam and other development and humanitarian organizations have engaged thousands of Rohingya men in cutting down hills vulnerable to landslides.
Around 50 bulldozers have been used in the operation in Kutupalong, Madhurchhara, Lambasia, Palongkhali, Balukhali, Thaingkhali, Landakhali and Taznimarkhola areas of the upazila.
“Many Rohingya families are living at risk of landslide, therefore, it is essential to relocate them to a safer places,” Abul Hossain, a Rohingya labourer, said.
“Over a hundred small-and medium-sized hills have already been cut down to this end. We get Tk50 per hour and work for a maximum of eight hours a day.”
Admitting to flattening the hills, Imam Sharif, supervisor of the IOM’s hill cutting operation, said around 3,000 Rohingya workers have been involved in their project.
He said: “Some 3,000 Rohingya men are working for a new establishment. There is no alternative but to cut down the hills in order to protect the refugees from landslides.”
Prof Nishat said hills are being flattened with the money of INGOs and donor countries.
“They have little knowledge about Bangladesh’s ecology and environment,” he said. “Also, the hills are being cutting down without any proper plan of the government, and it is alarming for our environment.”
As the Rohingya families continue to grab forest land and level hills, the helpless Forest Department has sought the government’s intervention in mitigating the losses.
Dr Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, an independent evaluator of Green Climate Fund, said Bangladesh should concentrate on recovering the losses through reforestation in the region with foreign and domestic funds, he stressed.