Incredibly, the world's most urgent humanitarian crisis is about to take a dramatic turn for the worse.
The unfathomable cruelties that caused a million Rohingya refugees to flee from Burma will soon be compounded by the forces of nature. The refugees are now at imminent risk of yet another disaster as Bangladesh's ferocious monsoon season bears down upon them. They live in stick and plastic shacks with a six inch foundation that are too weak to withstand heavy rains and storm. Also, being on hilly slopes, they highly susceptible to rainfall-triggered landslides.
Cyclones are already in the forecast.
And experts have warned that, if nothing is done, as many as 200,000 lives could be lost this summer due to drowning in water surges, being buried by landslides, and the epidemics resulting from leaking sewage and other non-sanitary situations.
The area has an average annual rainfall of over 100 inches concentrated mainly in the monsoon season. Cyclones also come every year. According the Bangladesh Meteorological Department, in the last three consecutive years, cyclones have brought 40, 80, and 90 miles per hour wind speed to the area of Cox's Bazar.
The refugees have had to cut down virtually all the trees to create rudimentary terraces to erect their huts on the hills in the area. They have also dug out the roots of the trees to use as a fuel, which was necessary as no other fuel is provided in the camps. This deforestation has exposed hills to erode and collapse in the rain. With the coming of the monsoon season accompanied by its cyclone with its 50-80 miles per hour winds and water surges this situation constitutes a ticking time-bomb that places tens of thousands of families at risk.
It is quite clear that very few Rohingya will be repatriated to Myanmar in the near future. They will be here for many monsoon seasons.
While this crisis requires immediate relocation of the most vulnerable, the time is now for authorities to adopt a longer-term sustainable risk reduction plan for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Fortunately, an immediately practical remedy is available with the potential to save thousands of lives over the coming years. And this systematic and planned approach can only be implemented in the monsoon season.
The international agencies have not focused on the possible life saving role of bamboo. Bamboo is native to the area, grows incredibly fast (over a foot per day), has strong roots, and can assist in stabilizing the hilly slopes preventing landslides this season and into the future.
Bamboo is a source of protein for Rohingya as well as of fuel, both of which are in short supply in the refugee camps. Urgently mass-planting bamboo saplings will swiftly and effectively re-green the area, which has been stripped of its foliage, and strengthen the water supply by pulling water into underground aquifers.
Bamboo saplings can be purchased very cheaply in local markets. It costs as little as 25 cents. A mere two million dollars can plant enough bamboo saplings to reduce landslide risk this year and far more into the 2019 monsoon season.
A speedy mass planting could be accomplished through associating it with the food distribution system organized by the Bangladeshi military which all Rohingya access on the regular basis. If managed intelligently, bamboo can save lives in the coming months—and in not too long a time, even become an important economic advantage, very useful for the production of affordable furniture, fiber, and paper.
The clock is ticking. Let us put into motion a plan to reforest the camps and surrounding terrain for the Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, and see to it that the camps do not become the latest mass-graves in the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time.
Imam Malik Mujahid chairs Interfaith Coalition to Stop Genocide in Burma. He is chair emeritus of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Follow him on Twitter at @MalikMujahid