With experts warning that heavy rains and cyclonic storms could devastate new Rohingya settlements in Bangladesh, several aid agencies have begun efforts to protect the refugees ahead of the impending monsoon season, which typically starts in May.
The aid agencies are doing work on different levels to stave off the risks of flooding and landslides, including efforts to move many refugees away from the unsafe areas.
“We are trying to relocate as many families as possible and move them to safer ground. We are also advocating very strongly with the government of Bangladesh to find suitable new flatlands so that we can quickly move the families. The government has allocated additional land,” said Caroline Gluck, United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) spokeswoman in Bangladesh. “But it's very forested and hilly and it requires lot of work to make it habitable and suitable for relocations. We are trying to do that now. But, it's a race against time.”
Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner, said plans to save the refugees from potential disasters are moving forward quickly.
“In a first major step we are expanding the largest refugee camp by 500 or 600 acres (100 - 200 hectares) on its west. We believe we will be able to relocate over 100,000 of the refugees who are facing risks of floods and landslides to this safer area. The progress of this plan is going on well and we have in fact already relocated 10,000 people to this safer ground,” Kalam told VOA.
In about a month, all related work will be over and “no refugees will finally be left at risk,” Kalam said.
Following a military crackdown in August, in which Myanmar’s soldiers were accused of rape, murder and arson in Rohingya villages in Rakhine state, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims began fleeing the Buddhist majority country.
Although Myanmar has consistently denied the charge of atrocities by the soldiers, since August, over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have crossed over to southeastern Bangladesh, where most of them are living in flimsily built bamboo-and-plastic shacks, on newly deforested hills.
Cox’s Bazar district, which registers one of the highest rainfalls in the country and often is lashed by cyclonic storms, is now hosting over one million Rohingya refugees on 3,000 acres (about 1200 hectares) of land. Around half a million of them live in the over-congested area known as Kutupalong-Balukhali.
After a “landslide and flood risk hazard” mapping of the area was completed by the UNHCR, using drone images and computer modeling, aid agencies have warned that around one-third of the areas in Kutupalong-Balukhali are particularly at risk during the oncoming monsoon season.
Noting that it is the most densely crowded refugee camp in the world, Zia Choudhury, country director of NGO CARE, said Kutupalong-Balukhali was standing at the edge of a disaster.
“The land is hilly, fragile and entirely unsuited to unplanned, settlement at this scale. The shelters are tightly packed on all available land, leaving just small gaps for roads and drainage. Many of the shelters are precariously perched on very inappropriate places, including the slope of the hills. We’re deeply concerned that during cyclone and torrential rains many of the shelters will simply collapse and wash away,” Choudhury told VOA.
CARE is working in one refugee camp on the hilly slopes in Cox’s Bazar to make it safe from floods and storms.
In Balukhali refugee camp, Sayeedul Amin, a Rohingya, said that since he fled Myanmar many weeks after violence broke out in August, he found no space to build his shack in a safer flatland area.
“I had to build the shelter for my family on the slope of the mountain which is very unsafe. So far during the dry days we did not face much crisis. But, we know we will be in big trouble with heavy rain and strong winds during monsoon. I think the roof made of plastic sheet will be blown away by storm,” Amin told VOA.
Shofi Ullah, a Rohingya house builder, said most refugees cannot not afford to build better quality houses that could withstand the fury of natural disasters.
“In [Myanmar], we used to build house mostly using robust timber poles. And, the roofs were strongly built using wooden planks. Rains or storms could not damage those houses easily. But, here, the people are building very weak type bamboo-and-plastic strictures,” Ullah told VOA.
According to UNHCR, around 150,000 refugees are facing a high risk of floods and landslides across the hilly slopes in Cox’s Bazar district.
The UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and World Food Programme (WFP), in cooperation with some Bangladesh government agencies and others, are using heavy earth moving machinery to level hundreds of hectares of land around the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp.
UNHCR'S Caroline Gluck says her agency is also training the refugee community for what they can do to alert themselves, to protect themselves and others, including early warning systems and getting training on first aid and what to do in the even of an emergency.
An earlier version of this story misidentified refugee Sayeedul Amin. VOA regrets the error.