By Irwin Loy
Tens of thousands of vulnerable people living in rickety homes in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps will be threatened by landslides and floods as the monsoon season nears, according to officials in the densely packed settlements.
Data released by aid groups shows that floods could submerge one third of the land in the cramped Kutupalong-Balukhali mega-camp, which is now home to more than half a million Rohingya refugees.
Using drone images, historical rainfall data and interviews with local residents, researchers have estimated the risks of floods and sudden “landslide failure” throughout the complex warren of interconnected streams and sloping hills. The risk analysis, released in late January, estimates that more than 86,000 people live in high-danger flood areas, while more than 23,000 live along steep, unstable hillsides that could crumble with continuous heavy rainfall.
Aid groups and Bangladeshi authorities say stabilising the most at-risk homes in the camps is a top priority ahead of the monsoon season, which typically begins in late May. The current dry season offers only a small window of opportunity before the rains set in – and some fear time is running out.
More than 688,000 Rohingya surged into Bangladesh after a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017. Overwhelmed by the influx, Bangladeshi authorities ushered most of the new arrivals to a giant mega-camp sprawled between existing refugee settlements, then home to roughly 100,000 people.
At the time, local NGOs and aid groups warned of the risks of amassing large numbers of people on unstable land. But, over the ensuing weeks, the camp exploded in size as Rohingya settled in, carving homes into the surrounding hillsides or digging in to low-lying land near rivers and streams.
Many Rohingya arriving in the camps pieced together their makeshift homes from tarpaulin sheets and scraps of bamboo.
In December, IRIN reported on early plans to prepare for the looming cyclone and rainy seasons. Aid workers warned that much of the infrastructure built over the past weeks could be swept away by a powerful storm or the monsoon rains.
”It’s going to be a disaster within a disaster; we’re going to have to restart,” said Graham Eastmond, who coordinates aid groups working on organising shelter in the camps. “The monsoons themselves are going to create a whole different landscape to what exists now.”
The new risk analysis estimates that floods and landslides could damage one quarter of washrooms and latrines in the main mega-camp and nearly half of the current sources of tube-well water. Other essential services hastily put in place during the influx are also at risk: makeshift classrooms for children, nutrition centres, and almost one third of health clinics – a particular concern given the already high risk of disease outbreaks in the cramped settlements.
Aid groups also warn that heavy floods and landslides could wash away roads and pathways, cutting off large parts of the camp not submerged by the rainfall.
The priority now, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is to upgrade as many of the Rohingya homes as possible with stronger bamboo and better building techniques. Authorities are also looking into the logistics of moving the most at-risk homes. But this involves major work to level off steep hillsides and find useable new land – extremely difficult when space is at such a high premium. Already, aid groups working in education say the threat of monsoon season could see the permanent closure of dozens of learning centres in flood-prone areas, shrinking classroom space for 10,000 children.
With the monsoon season fast approaching, aid officials are stepping up warnings that the window of opportunity to prepare is rapidly closing.
“We are running out of time,” said Zia Choudhury, Bangladesh country director for the NGO CARE.