FAISAL* points to a mark on the dirt floor, almost a metre in from his front door. “This is where the water came to last year,” he says. “I had to keep pushing the water back out.”
Like hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, Faisal, his wife Farira* and their two children arrived in the Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazar last September, at the tail end of the monsoon season, after fleeing violence and bloodshed in Burma (Myanmar).
Though the worst of the wet was over, their basic shelter – made of bamboo and plastic and sitting perilously near the bottom of one of the many valleys running through the makeshift camps – was immediately at risk.
“It was really dangerous when the water levels went up. Sometimes when it got too high we would climb up the hill and only return when the water went back down,” Faisal tells me as we shelter in his hut from the blistering sun, the irony of which isn’t lost on me.
“I had to carry my children across the water…they were really afraid, but it was the only way to get them across safely.”
This is my second time visiting the camps in Cox’s Bazar – the first was last October. I’ve been speaking to Faisal and others about their experiences during last year’s rains as they brace for the upcoming monsoon season, which begins in earnest in a few weeks time, though the first rainfall of the year could fall as early as Thursday. There’s a sense of anxiety and tension in the air; an eerie case of the calm before the return of the storm.
Faisal is a proud farmer who wants nothing more than to return to his old life tending to his animals and rice paddies. Instead he and his family are among almost 700,000 Rohingya who’ve sought refuge in Bangladesh in the past seven months, and now live in overcrowded camps where they rely on aid agencies for basic services like food, shelter and healthcare.
The Government of Bangladesh has been extremely generous in allowing a population the size of Athens into the country, quickly allocating land and providing support for refugees.
However, the very fact that so many people have arrived in such a short period of time, combined with a monsoon season that on average sees more than three metres of rain, means this is a disaster waiting to happen.
One of the biggest risks is landslides. Much of the land where the Rohingya are living was dense jungle only a few months ago, but was cleared to make space for the new settlements. The trade-off is that the root systems that bind the soil and prevent landslides are now no longer there.
A recent joint assessment by several aid agencies found that more than 100,000 Rohingya will be at direct risk of flooding or landslides this rainy season, though we know that almost everyone will be impacted in some way.
Making matters worse, mid-April also marks the start of the cyclone season. If a big storm hits the camps in Cox’s Bazar, we will see a new catastrophe unfold amid an already desperate crisis.
One of our major concerns over the coming months is the risk of a deadly outbreak of disease. We’ve already seen at least 39 people killed from diphtheria, almost 800 infected with the measles and more than 40,000 reported cases of acute watery diarrhea – all of which impact children most.
Conditions are ripe for another health emergency, with severe overcrowding, high levels of water contamination and alarming rates of severe malnutrition among children under 5. Add in the monsoon rains, which are expected to damage a quarter of all toilets in the camps and half of all wells, and it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
The new Joint Response Plan launched on March 16 calls for almost US$1billion dollars in funding to meet the needs of 1.3 million Rohingya and host community members in Cox’s Bazar. It also warns that “any outbreak of disease would quickly claim the lives of thousands of malnourished children” given current malnutrition levels, which exceed global emergency thresholds.
Just as I was in October, I am inspired by the work local and international aid agencies, UN bodies, the government and host communities are doing to meet the needs of incredibly vulnerable people.
Save the Children alone reaches almost 600,000 people through regular food distributions, has set up nine emergency health clinics, and runs 86 child friendly spaces and more than a hundred spaces where children have access to learning opportunities in their mother tongue, Rohingya. We’ve also dug more than 300 latrines and 24 deep tube wells, and we’re ramping up our monsoon preparation work.
The humanitarian operation in the camps is nothing short of awesome – in the true sense of the word. Yet there is a tangible urgency amongst the aid community, who are working around the clock to scale up preparations ahead of the disaster season.
Faisal feels it too. He is anxious, and tells me he wants to move to another, safer part of the camp. He also says he needs more materials, like rope, bamboo and plastic sheeting so he can reinforce his home and protect his family when the worst of the rains finally arrive.
But he, like so many others in the camps, is hamstrung when it comes to action. “There isn’t any preparation work we can do because we don’t have any money,” he says despondently.
“We’re just waiting for help.”
By Evan Schuurman, Save the Children’s Regional Media Manager for Asia and who returned from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.