Timely intervention has saved lives in the Rohingya camps
The ongoing monsoon rains in Bangladesh have appeared as a hellish nightmare to Rohingya refugees in the country since they fled their homes following a ruthless military campaign launched by the Myanmar government last year.
Cox’s Bazar— a hilly region where nearly a million refugees are living under woven bamboo panels and tarpaulin— suffers some of the worst monsoon conditions in the world.
When the region is already prone to multiple natural hazards including landslides, floods and cyclones, the monsoon rains have created even more challenges in what is already an extremely difficult environment.
The camps have been affected by mud, flooding, water logging, landslides, damage to shelters and infrastructures while the refugees have suffered an increase in weather related health hazards.
According to Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), hosted by International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to coordinate the overall Rohingya refugee crisis, an estimated 49,700 refugees have been affected by weather related incidents between May 11to August 14.
• 6,020 refugees displaced
• 40 injured
• 1 killed
Scale of natural disasters
|Natural Disasters || Numbers of refugees affected|
|297 landslides and erosions ||13,300|
|181 wind storms || 25,560|
|38 water logging incidents|| 3,380|
|41 flood incidents|| 5,520|
Before the relocation process started, 246,600 estimated refugees were at risk of landslides or floods in Ukhia and Teknaf.
Of these, as of August 12, an estimated 41,751 refugees were in areas at highest risk of landslides and prioritized for relocation, 24,401 refugees have been relocated from areas of highest risk of landslides (56 percent of the prioritized caseload).
Still an estimated 20,040 refugees are remaining in areas of highest risk of landslides and prioritized for relocation, ISCG said.
When many at home and abroad were afraid of looming disasters and deaths in Rohingya camps during the monsoon period, it seems that the situation is yet to get that bad.
Sources said the vast amount of work carried out by the Bangladesh authorities along with the aid agencies has had a massive impact in terms of tackling major monsoon disaster.
The joint mitigation measures, volunteer mechanism and coordinated preparedness and response activities have ensured that there has not been any major incident during the on-going monsoon season which began in June.
Government-appointed Camp in-Charges (CiCs) and Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) volunteers supported by UN Agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) worked around the clock to ensure that those who needed help the most that received it.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Kutupalong Rohingya Camp-1 in-Charge Md Rezaul Karim said: “No major disaster has taken place as the government was alert before the monsoon started. The government conducted an assessment to identify the risk factors and about five thousands of refugees were internally relocated to safe zones inside the camps.”
“The CiCs along with the volunteers of Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) and Rohingya community had worked day and night during the torrential rains. Some 60 CPP volunteers in 30 camps led by CiCs were employed during the rainy nights. Meanwhile, the traditional knowledge of Rohingya people helped us to relocate the families who were at risk of landslides,” he said.
When contacted, IOM Media Communications and Public Information Officer Fiona MacGregor said that more than 200,000 families— almost the entire refugee population— had received shelter upgrade materials.
Many kilometers of roads, pathways and drains have been constructed to reduce flooding and ensure access to vital aid and services could continue even in severe weather conditions, she said.
“Prepositioned machinery and teams, working under the Site Management Engineering Project (SMEP)—a joint initiative between IOM, World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR— have been on standby, sometimes working through the night, to prevent road collapses,” MacGregor told the Dhaka Tribune.
“It is important that the current level of preparedness and response should continue with preparation for two upcoming Cyclone seasons in October - November and April – May,” she added.
In order to identify and prioritize, risk mitigation measures for floods and landslides in the Rohingya refugee camps, a technical study by UNHCR, the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center and the University of Dhaka was conducted last year in December.
Following the technical study several measures were initiated, including structural and non-structural: additional materials and tools to strengthen shelter; a volunteer mechanism for response; the strengthening of slopes; construction and strengthening of roads and culverts to ensure access; stockpiling; simulation exercise on disaster, mass awareness on do’s and dont’s related to disasters; and the relocation of households from landslide and flood prone areas.
Among the multiple efforts undertaken, one of the most effective initiatives includes the Site Maintenance and Engineering Project (SMEP) commenced in February 2018, which is a joint venture by UNHCR - IOM - WFP with four principal objectives: Clearing and strengthening primary drainage channels, maintaining vehicular access via maintenance, emergency repair and rehabilitation, materials supply, fabrication, and pre-positioning to facilitate rapid response, and finally site preparation works.
The first two objectives have largely been undertaken by 14 forward operating teams consisting of 20 labourers, a mechanical equipment, supervisor and roving engineer support. The teams were activated in early June when the monsoon began, the ISCG said.
To provide real-time rain update during the monsoon season, three state of the art rain gauges— small pieces of machinery which register how much rain has fallen through a tipping bucket— have been installed in landslide-prone refugee sites.
With solar panels and data collection mechanisms, the rain gauges—which also calculate whether the amount of rain which has fallen in the past hours is high enough to increase landslide risk— were installed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration with the UNHCR, the Geological Survey of Bangladesh (GSB) and the Norwegian Geo-technical Institute (NGI).
“In hilly terrain, when a large amount of rain falls in a short space of time, the water can destabilize the soil. When a dangerous threshold is hit, the rain gauge sends off an automatic text message to a list of designated government officials and key UN emergency managers. The rest of the time, the gauges simply upload the rainfall data onto an online platform every 15 minutes,” UNDP Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist Cathrine Tranberg Haarsaker told the Dhaka Tribune.
As part of this UNHCR funded and UNDP managed project, the automatic rain-gauges were installed at Chakmarkul settlement, Kutupalong Registered Camp and Kutupalong Camp 16. The three rain gauges were installed along with maintenance to the two pre-existing rain gauges in Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar installed by GSB and NGI in the past.
“As the rainfall is much localized in Cox’s Bazar, it can be hard to know whether there is heavy rain in the Rohingya camps when there is heavy rainfall in Cox’s Bazar town. By installing these new rain gauges, we are improving access to real-time information about weather conditions which can rapidly exacerbate landslide risk in the camps. The warning function of the automated rain gauges tells decision-makers in Cox’s Bazar and Dhaka immediately when they should be aware of weather leading to increased risk of landslide in the camps,” Haarsaker explained.
“This allows decision-makers to plan response operations, caution their staff, and send out people, supplies and equipments necessary to deal with the problems caused by heavy rain. Over time, we will also be able to analyze the rainfall data against the landslide occurrences and be able to better determine which are more risky areas of the camps,” she added.
However, Haarsaker also admits that the rain gauges have limitations as they only provide real-time update of rainfall.
“At the moment, the rain gauges are useful for the refugees in that it allows the camp authorities and humanitarian actors to respond better. But they can only tell us what is happening right now; what would be more useful for the Rohingyas is if there is a good, localized weather forecast from Bangladesh Meteorological Department which could warn them in advance so they can secure their belongings or temporarily relocate to a neighbour’s house in a safer place,” she told the Dhaka Tribune.
When thousands of Rohingya refugees are living at high risk of landslide during this monsoon, the camp authorities have found an innovative, unconventional and low-cost way to prevent slope erosion by planting vetiver grass.
Vetiver (Vetiveria Zizanioides)—a clumping grass without stolons or rhizomes— is known for its ability to reduce siltation and stabilize soil. In Bangladesh vetiver is also known as ‘Binna Grass’.
It grows up to five feet high and forms clumps and its stems are tall, and its leaves are long, thin and rather rigid. Vetiver’s roots grow downward to about seven feet to 13 feet deep. The massively thick root binds the soil, making it difficult to be dislodged under high velocity water flows.
Senior Assistant Secretary for the Power, Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry, Mohammad Talut said that they in collaboration with other organizations, including UNHCR and IOM, have taken up a project to plant vetiver grass to prevent landslide in Rohingya camps.
According to experts, vetiver has neither stolons nor rhizomes. Because of these characteristics, the vetiver plant is highly drought-tolerant and can help protect soil against sheet erosion. Though it origins in India, vetiver is widely cultivated in tropical regions.
Talut, who is in-charge of the project at Balukhali camp, said: “Rohingyas are living on around 7,500 acres of land in the hills of Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas. The process of bringing and planting the grass on the hills in the refugee sites has already started.”
“Non-governmental organizations like BRAC, ActionAid and Danish Refugee Council (DRC) have been working with us in planting the vetiver grass. If it is successfully planted, it will help us save around 400,000 Rohingyas,” he added.
According to government data, around 300,000 Rohingyas live in tarpaulin shelters on bare, unstable hill slopes.
The UN Migration Agency, IOM, has distributed two million vetiver grass plants among Rohingya refugees to reduce soil erosion and risk of landslides in May.
Besides, local and international aid agencies have distributed further two million vetiver plants before the end of May, sources said.
According to IOM, the project is a low-cost high-return initiative since the grass cost just over USD1.50 for a bundle of 200 plants but could have a dramatic impact in stabilizing land.
For instance, 200 vetiver plants can stabilize an area equivalent to 150 football fields, the IOM said.
Although the government officials and different INGO and NGO workers are working hard to tackle the monsoon hassles in the camps, the Rohingya volunteers seem to be the real heroes of the Herculean task.
The desperate Rohingya refugees, who once cleared vegetation from vast swathes for space to build shelter for their families, are now working day and night to secure the camps from looming disasters in the monsoon.
With the support of the Bangladesh authorities and aid agencies, they are now willingly partaking in each of the preventive measures including relocation activities, making drainages, covering hill slopes with thick cloths, implanting plants and trees around the refugee sites.
“The Rohingya volunteers are playing crucial role in tackling monsoon problems as they have broader ideas about the camps. They know each and everything of the camps and they keep contacts with us on a regular basis,” Kutupalong Rohingya Camp-1 CiC Rezaul said.
“During the governmental risk assessment, we observed many of them have utilized traditional knowledge while making their makeshift shelters. They also willingly inform us about any vulnerable situation inside the camps,” Reazul told the Dhaka Tribune.
“Since they will be the victim if any disaster takes place inside the camp, they are more alert than anyone else,” he added.
Many international aid agencies including UNHCR, IOM, ActionAid have been utilizing the Rohingya men by hiring on a daily basis to carry out the huge humanitarian and preventive activities.
Hossain Khan is one of these volunteers who has been working for Medecines Sans Frontieres (MSF) since last year. He works for providing emergency medical services in Balukhali camp for a monthly Tk15,000 salary.
“In our homeland in Rakhine, we used to be happy seeing rain. But here in the camp, rains are like a nightmare to us. During the rain, almost all of the refugees remain afraid and worried about different dangers,” Hossain told the Dhaka Tribune.
“However, we have no other options left. As we are driven away from our homes, we have to live with such dangers. So, we are working hard along with the Bangladesh authorities and aid agencies to reduce risks and sufferings,” he said.