Adopting a nature-based solution approach to rejuvenate degraded ecosystems of the Ukhiya refugee camps
The Teknaf Peninsula of southeastern Bangladesh possesses diverse ecosystems - mixed evergreen hill-forests, networks of forest-fed hill streams providing sources of freshwater, tidal river and the Bay of Bengal - supporting livelihoods of local communities, especially the poor.
However, living in this peninsular land also poses challenges such as over-use, encroachment, conversions of forest and riparian ecosystems, declining natural resources, water pollution, and exclusion of the poor underpinned by weak governance. Climate change also manifests extreme events like cyclones, droughts, high temperature, erratic rains, flooding, erosion, landslides, crop loss. Furthermore, accommodating about a million Rohingya refugees in 2017-18 further exacerbated these challenges. The refugees living in such cramped camps have to face these challenges too.
To address these problems, UNHCR launched a project aiming at restoring the 8km long-degraded Madhur-Chhara stream basin in Kutupalong Mega Camp (KMC), Ukhiya in 2019. Originating from the Ukhiya hill-forests, this stream flows down through forests, cropland, settlements, growth centers and finally merges with the Naf River on the southeastern part of the county bordering Myanmar. CNRS and UNHCR jointly designed the action plan adopting a nature-based solution (NbS) approach aiming to build socio-ecological resilience by creating an environment to enable strengthened refugee protection.
Madhur Chhara Restoration
Participatory planning with host and refugee communities prioritized urgent addressing of issues such as forest-cover loss, water pollution, and consequent diseases, water-scarcity of dry-season, food insecurity. Accordingly, NbS intervention packages were developed with the focus on four areas viz. i) stream restoration, ii) water pollution management, iii) stream-bank stabilization, and iv) regreening denuded camp areas. Among NbS interventions (reservoir creation, riparian vegetation) relates to ecosystem restoration (ER), some are (stream rehabilitation) ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) and some (stream bank stabilization) relate to ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (Eco-DRR).
Water-related interventions: Include stream widening, to increase carrying capacity, creating water reservoirs to store water year-round (Figure 1) for socio-ecological purposes. 4 water-reservoir and 1 slit-trap were built and 7 streams were rehabilitated over the period of 2019-2020.
Water pollution management: Three systems were piloted to reduce water pollution. These systems included a bacteria-based wastewater treatment plant for treating undrinkable water to use them for household and commercial purposes; constructing wetlands to make polluted stream-water cleaner, and planting Kolaboti (This plant has the ability to absorb /suck up excess pollutants /organic nutrients from wastewater)plants on streambeds to absorb the pollutants from the wastewater.
Stream-bank stabilization: Green approach was adopted along with the restored streams to protect and stabilize banks by maintaining adequate slopes, terracing, compacting, and planting vetivers and other local grasses on banks and slopes supported by bamboo poles.
Forest related actions: The re-greening principle was applied to the entire Madhur chhara basin through the riparian, block, institutional, homestead, and street plantations.
Recently conducted third-party planting assessment reports revealed 80-90% survival of planted trees in 2019 within KMC areas bank protection and greening reduced flooding and erosion damages by increasing the carrying capacity of rain-based flood water, availing surface-water for longer periods than before (Figure 2). Wastewater treatment facilities and water reservoirs helped to reduce water-pollution and ensure year-round water security for the usage of the residents for various purposes. They also helped wildlife by enabling maintenance of groundwater aquifer levels.
The biodiversity monitoring reports revealed increased re-colonization of wildlife biodiversity in stream basin restored sites compared to campsites having no ecosystem restoration focus. 134% of higher wildlife diversity and a total of 76 wildlife species were recorded in the Kalam-Chhara restoration site in 2020, with only 34 species being recorded in the other non-restoration campsites. The restoration site not only witnessed increased numbers of species of Amphibians (10) and mammals (6), but it also had the most number of reptile species (15) when compared to other sites. These results give testimony of the effectiveness of NbS approach in rejuvenating degraded ecosystems, recolonizing biodiversity and increasing ecosystem services.
After the Rohingyas initially settled in the hill-settlements with no prior human settlements in 2017, they used the water from Kalam-chara basin for all purposes. Over-use of its water leads to water pollution and scarcity. It leads to diarrhea, typhoid, and other skin diseases for the refugees too. (Akhter et al, 2020). They then had to rely on water from unprotected dug wells for household purposes. While access to supplied-water mitigated their drinking-water crisis, water pollution and environmental degradation still continued to pose problems. Najir Majhi, a refugee from camp 4 said:
“Camp houses are at the risk of collapse from monsoon floods due to hill-cutting and forest clearing which lead to soil and bank erosion and reduced carrying capacity of streams.”
The refugees reflected on water security issues by acknowledging an increase of water quality and availability due to ecosystem restoration with stream-water now being used for household purposes. Unlike before, refugees now acknowledge that the presence of varieties of aquatic insects, frogs, and snakes in streams are indicators of water quality improvement (biological indicators).
Regarding water security and food production, Najir Ahmed, Refugee Majhi of camp 4 said:
“We get rice, pulses, oil, eggs as food assistance but not fish, meat, vegetables nor we get cash assistance - many refugees now cultivate vegetables in available land adjacent their homes and open spaces in the basin using water from streams most of which they consume and distribute among fellow refugees and rest sale for cash.”
Yasin, a refugee in Camp-4/Block-B, earned Tk5,900 from selling his self-cultivated vegetables in 2020. Stream restoration also has aesthetic values creating a soothing environment and leading to improved mental health and positive thinking. Najir Ahmed said:
“When in crisis, we are mentally disturbed and often physically torture our wives. We got wages from working in restoration and planting activities. We produce vegetables using stream water and earn cash and now we live in a better physical environment leading to a better mental condition keeping us from abusing our wives.”
The water reservoirs were appreciated by refugees for supplying the camps with low-lying areas to retain year-round water and increasing water security.
Riparian ecosystem restoration also gives heat-protection through producing cool air. Furthermore, re-greening, stream restoration and reservoir creation collectively contributed to climate mitigation actions by storing atmospheric carbons. (Figure 3).
NbS as a way forward
The NbS interventions piloted in refugee camps demonstrated positive social-ecological outcomes in terms of increased water and food security, reduced climate-disaster risks, facilitating re-colonized biodiversity in restored sites. Interim observations confirm restoration schemes providing services for provisioning (food, water), regulating (carbon sink), cultural (aesthetics) ,and supporting (wildlife habitats).
It is now urgent to replicate the approach in other locations. UNHCR seems keen to expand the approach and a recent partnership between SMEP - engineering unit (formed by WFP-UNHCR-IOM) at Cox’s Bazar has recently with CNRS to integrate NbS in engineering schemes, is an indication of adoption of NbS at wider refugee-impacted landscapes in Cox’s Bazar.
Dr Mokhlesur Rahman is the Executive Director at the Center for Natural Resource Studies (CNRS)