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Dark clouds hover over survivors in camps

  • Published at 05:15 pm June 7th, 2018
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Photo: Wasama Doja

Unforeseen consequences of well-meant projects are a recurring theme of development work. In the Rohingya camps, they are standard currency, and the worst might be coming soon.

Having slipped and stumbled up the worn-out steps carved into the slope of the hill, the view from atop makes it very difficult to be optimistic. Ominous rain clouds hang over hill after hill of bare brown mud, crammed with makeshift tarpaulin and bamboo structures. 

Last year, these slopes were densely forested, with a few makeshift settlements for Rohingya people escaping persecution in adjacent Myanmar. In August 2017 the Myanmar military launched a scorchedearth operation, which sent thousands of terrified refugees fleeing across the border each day. Within two months the hills had transformed into the largest refugee camp in the world.

It took an unprecedented humanitarian effort by Bangladesh to accommodate more than 700,000 desperate new arrivals. Government and non-government agencies rushed to install basic infrastructure.  A thousand acres of forest was razed with astonishing speed to make way for homes.

Much of the infrastructure built to provide essential services to the new population became potential threats to their safety. For example, in the first weeks since August 2017, NGOs dug as many latrines as they could wherever they could find space, to try and preserve the dignity and health of the traumatized newcomers. But within weeks, the same latrines, dug to an inadequate depth, and used far beyond capacity, were quickly filled up and overflowing. A light shower of rain sent rivulets of putrid waste running through the camp.

Now that monsoons and the threat of cyclones is nigh, the vulnerability of the camp inhabitants is starkly obvious. Already this month an eight-year-old girl was killed in a landslide. According to the Emergency Preparedness and Response Report by Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) as of 22 May, around 200,000 individuals are at risk of landslide and flood in camps, of which 25,000 are at very high risk.  Some 18,408 people have been relocated from high risk locations or were otherwise part of risk mitigation efforts.

Moreover, the density of the population here means that even a small occurrence disaster could take many lives. UN’s recommends having at least 35 square meters of space per person in any habitation. In the camps there is less thanfive square meters to each person. Further relocations are on-going to reduce the density and risk.

“When we constructed our latrines, we took these dangers into consideration,” says Farid Ahmed Sagar, senior manager of Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Management at Friendship, one of 79 majorNGOs working at the Rohingya camps. “They are enclosed spaces with bathing rooms and separate latrines for men and women. They were constructed on raised cement platforms, in areas that we deemed least likely to flood.”

Friendship dug its latrine pits to a minimum depth of six feet. Yet, knowing that eventually even these will fill up, they have constructed two desludging plants to empty and treat the waste from surrounding latrines. Sagar points out that each detail represents a struggle. Even finding a space in the crowded camp, where a project does not inconvenience or disturb residents in any way, is a difficult task.

Despite the precautions, it’s impossible to guarantee the safety of the latrines, says Friendship director Kazi Amdadul Hoque. “Because we have never worked in this landscape before, we do not know it well. We have done all our work during the dry season. We can only identify possible threats and arrange alternatives.”

The site management at the camp, which is a partnership involving all the organizations working at each camp block, have been surveying to identify at-risk facilities and getting the organisations responsible to dismantle or move these projects. However, their assessments are mere approximations, given that the landscape has not been tested by severe flooding or rain.

All it takes is one flooded latrine to contaminate all the water sources in an area, destroy the environment, and put the population of the camp at risk of cholera outbreak. Heavy rain poses other risks. Latrines on slopes are at risk of collapsing during mudslides. 

Bangladesh has done a herculean job of accommodating the largest fleeing population of our times. But the entire job was done without regard for future problems. 

Looking at the landscape from atop the hill, one wonders what might happen if a bad cyclone were to sweep over the area. How long would it be before the flimsy bamboo and plastic sheeting would give way? What might the scale of destruction be in such a densely populated and vulnerable area? Are there shelters and hospitals equipped to even begin to deal with such a contingency?

With the risk of cyclones, rain, and floods around the corner, the upcoming season will be a trying one in Cox’s Bazar.Now that the immediate catastrophe of a fleeing population has been negotiated, attention to long-term disaster preparedness is the next most urgent need. 

The writer is a freelance journalist and senior executive at Friendship