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Addressing environmental degradation caused by Rohingya Influxes in light of international environmental law

  • Published at 02:10 pm September 4th, 2019
Climate Tribune_August 2019_Pg 14 & 15
Photo: Courtesy

Bangladesh should demand compensation from Myanmar for environmental degradation caused by Rohingya influx

August 25, 2019 will be the second anniversary of the Myanmar Army’s attack that sent the Rohingya populations fleeing to shelter in Bangladesh.  The attack on Rohingyas conducted by Myanmar Army can be denoted in various political and legal terms. The masterminds behind this attack may also be brought under international criminal justice system. The people who have fled from Arakan state and received shelter in Bangladesh may or may not be denoted as ‘refugee’ on the basis of the term defined under the 1951 International Refugee Convention. The crisis can or cannot be linked with national and international security.  However, although least heard, from the view point of climate change and sustainable development, most essential aspect of the issue concerns the impact of the influx of Rohingya population over local environment and biodiversity of Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh. 

As a result of huge influxes of Rohinngya population from Rakhine state of Myanmar, Bangladesh now hosts the world's biggest refugee camp in Kutupalong-Balukhali area of Cox’s Bazar which hosts more than one million Rohingya ‘refugees’. In fact, including refugees from past as well as the local community of Cox’s Bazar, the total number of affected people since the Rohingya inflow that took place in August 2017 is close to 1.5 million.  The impact of this large number of population on already degraded environment of Cox’s Bazar region actually beggars description.

A study conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the UN Women published on Sept.18, 2018 reveals that Ukhia and Teknaf of Cox’s Bazar, lost a total of 4,300 acres of hills and forests which were cut down for the purpose of accommodating temporary shelters, facilities, and cooking fuel . Around half of the total natural forest land (793 ha out of 1502 ha) of the area has been invaded. Around 3,000 to 4,000 acres (1,200–1,600 ha) of hilly terrestrial in the Teknaf-Ukhia-Himchari crisis area have been cleared of plants. These happened as a result of collecting 6,800 tonnes of wood each month as household fuels, and using on an average 60 culms of Bamboo to construct temporary shelter for a Rohingya family.

The indiscriminate hill cutting increases the apprehension of landslides in the area during monsoon.  Thousands of shallow tube-wells dug to meet the needs of drinking water of the ‘refugees’ pose threats to aquifers. Increased vehicular traffic and smokes generated from firewood burned by ‘refugees’ result in air-pollution and increases the risk of air pollution borne diseases.  Since there is no recycling system, polyphone bags and plastic bottles in the area also cause environmental pollution and put the Bay-of Bengal under threat of increased plastic pollution.  All these created a mammoth threat to the biodiversity of this ecologically critical area of Bangladesh. The UNDP Report (2018) expresses its deep concern that if no appropriate measures are taken immediately, the negative impacts over biodiversity of the areas will be irreversible. 

Bangladesh government is obliged to address the above-described environmental degradation issues as per concerned national level environmental law and policies. But, this environmental degradation and threat to irreversible loss of biodiversity has been resultant from a trans-boundary issue behind which Bangladesh as a state did not play any role in. Besides, Bangladesh, with its limited resources and a large number of populations, is also not capable enough to address and resolve the problem on its own. Although some steps of providing with alternative fuel solid waste management system and replantation etc. have been introduced by the Bangladesh government and other development partner organizations, the initiatives for ‘eco-restoration’ in the region  are still far less than the necessity. For these reasons, this write up argues that the issue of such an unexpected degradation of environment and biodiversity that might also play a role to accelerate the ratio of global climate changes and pose a threat to local and global sustainable development should be seen in the light of international and multilateral environmental laws. 

Among various international and multilateral environmental agreements, the most important one which has direct relevance to conservation of biodiversity is 1994 Convention on Biological Diversity. First of all, as per objective clause of the Convention, it is Myanmar which is responsible for the environmental degradation of Cox’s Bazar region because the degradation was an end result of their activities which led Rohingya population fleeing from Myanmar’s territory to Bangladesh’s territory. This is inferable from objective clause of the Convention that clearly stipulates states’ responsibility ‘to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction’. (Art 3, CBD) 

However, being a Party to the Convention, Bangladesh is also responsible to address and prevent the damage happened to local environment and biodiversity, as the incidence took place within Bangladesh’s territorial jurisdiction. (Art 4 of the CBD)  It is important to note that to fulfill Bangladesh’s obligation of addressing the issue, government of Bangladesh can seek international cooperation. This is clear from Art 5 of the CBD that requires each contracting Party to ‘cooperate with other Contracting Parties, directly or, where appropriate, through competent international organizations, in respect of areas beyond national jurisdiction and on other matters of mutual interest, for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity’. Based on a broader interpretation of the meaning of this article, Bangladesh can arguably seek global cooperation not only in restoration of local environment and biodiversity, but also in obliging Myanmar to compensate for the environmental degradation that took place in Bangladesh  due to Rohingya influxes. Myanmar’s obligation of compensating Bangladesh government is not only derived from objective clause of the CBD, it is also justifiable in the light of ‘polluter pays’ principle of international environmental law. 

While the damages towards environment and biodiversity took place in Cox’s Bazar region will also accelerate the   adversities posed by climate change in the region as well as threaten the promotion of local sustainable development, the issue can and should also be considered by global community in the light of global climate change agreements. In this regard, the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2015 Paris Agreement both require all countries to cooperate with each other in attaining Convention’s objectives that include climate change adaptation and mitigation related activities as well as promotion of sustainable development. In fact, protecting environmental and biodiversity related degradation in the ecologically critical zone of Bangladesh is not only essential for climate change adaptation and mitigation but also important for local sustainable development. Apart from obliging all countries or member states to cooperate with each other, both UNFCCC and Paris Agreement require industrially developed country Parties to provide financial and technical assistance to those developing and least developed country Parties who need such assistance most. 

Hence, Bangladesh is arguably entitled to receive international cooperation for bringing ecological and environmental harmony back in the Cox’s bazar region from both global biodiversity conservation regime (CBD) and global climate change regime (UNFCCC). However, no global cooperation can actually ensure ‘eco restoration’ process of the affected region, if Rohingya populations are not successfully repatriated to their own land. In this connection, it is possible to comment that pressures from above mentioned two global platforms might facilitate successful repatriation of Rohingya population. Whether repatriation process successfully takes place through diplomatic initiatives or not, technically Bangladesh has all liberty to claim compensation from Myanmar for the environmental degradation caused by Rohingya influxes as such make it a potentially successful case instance of international environmental law. 

Md Mahatab Uddin  has a PhD in Public International Law on Climate Change and Sustainable Development (Denmark), and is an Advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and a Visiting Fellow, ICCCAD.