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Rohingya refugees prepare camps for monsoon season

Diego Cupolo Cox's Bazar
May 31, 2019

As monsoon season begins in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are working with humanitarian agencies to fortify the flood-prone terrain where they have taken refuge. Diego Cupolo reports from Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugees prepare camps for Monsoon season
Image: DW/D. Cupolo

In early May, Cyclone Fani was projected to hit Bangladesh with 175 kilometers per hour (108 miles per hour) winds and heavy rains. Humanitarian groups sprung into action, dispatching disaster response teams and distributing supplies to the highly vulnerable Rohingya camps, which host over 910,000 refugees along the nation's southern coastal area.

Read more: Rohingya people in Myanmar: What you need to know

Built on hills made of a fine, silt-like soil, the camps near the Cox's Bazar district are particularly prone to landslides and flash floods, meaning downpours can wreak havoc on the successive waves of Rohingya refugees who have taken shelter there. As Cyclone Fani approached, both refugees and the many agencies that manage the camps watched nervously as the storm veered west, largely missing Cox's Bazar, but causing extensive damage in India and western Bangladesh.

The episode would serve as a precursor to the potentially catastrophic events that lie ahead. Now, as monsoon season begins in Bangladesh, massive earth-moving projects that have been undertaken over the last year to reinforce camp settlements against the worst weather conditions will be put to the test.

Many of the homes constructed in Kutupalong Camp were built quickly and spontaneously, making them highly vulnerable to landslides in heavy rains
Many of the homes constructed in Kutupalong Camp are highly vulnerable to landslides in heavy rainsImage: DW/D. Cupolo

Working side by side with local residents and NGOs, Rohingya refugees have been taking part in a program as paid laborers to build roads, bridges, drainage systems and reinforcement walls. Known as the Site Maintenance Engineering Project (SMEP), the program seeks to address critical infrastructure issues in the camps, most of which were hastily built in 2017 as over 700,000 refugees fled ethnic violence in Myanmar.

"These slopes are not stable, at any moment you could have a landslide," said Mosa Alshalabi, an engineer with the World Food Programme (WFP), which is coordinating the program with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Reinforcing terrain, relocating people

Alshalabi oversees the many construction crews that are chopping hills in half, making graded terraces of their slopes and reinforcing them with treated-bamboo retention walls. Native vegetation is then planted on the terraces to help hold the soil together. In recent months, several new camps have been built in this manner, allowing Rohingya families to relocate to safer shelters than those initially built as the crisis unfolded.

"We call it 'decongesting the camps,'" Alshalabi told DW. "Almost 25,000 people have been relocated into the camp 20 and camp 4 extensions. But the old camps are so densely populated that it doesn't seem like that many people moved."

Taken together, the Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar are the largest refugee settlement in the world. A report by Human Rights Watch published in August 2018 found the camp to be severely overcrowded, with an average usable space of just 10.7 square meters per person. The report called for Rohingya refugees to be relocated to safer areas outside the camps, but the long-term prospects of hosting the displaced community has become a contentious subject in Bangladeshi politics.

A Rohingya refugee looks over a slope that workers are stabilizing with terraces and retention walls in the Kutupalong Camp
A Rohingya refugee looks over a slope that workers are stabilizing with terraces and retention walls in the Kutupalong CampImage: DW/D. Cupolo

Read more: Rohingya reject relocation to Bangladesh's island 'prison camp'

Government officials continue to put pressure on Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya refugees and, in viewing their stay as temporary, have banned the use of permanent construction materials in the camps, compounding existing infrastructure problems.

Public works for public needs

Yet for the time being, earthmoving projects continue and, in the process, provide much needed employment for camp residents, who are neither permitted to work nor attend schools. Several thousand Rohingya refugees have signed up to participate in the program and are paid roughly $5 (€4.5) for an eight-hour workday, the minimum wage in Bangladesh. Among them is Mohamed Elias, a 35-year-old refugee who has been living in the camps since 2017.

"During the rainy season, it gets very wet here," Elias said as he worked to level out a terrace. "The soil breaks down easily and the hills collapse, so what we are doing now will protect our homes … it also feels good to work."

Navin Karki, a site management officer for IOM, points out new drainage ways installed in the camps that should help mitigate rain damage
Navin Karki, a site management officer, points out new drainage ways installed in the camps to help mitigate rain damageImage: DW/D. Cupolo

Rohingya females also take part in the infrastructure projects and compose about 30% of the total workforce. Roshida Begum, a mother of four whose husband was killed in Myanmar, said she waters vegetation on the terraces in the morning, carries soil to construction sites in the afternoon, and cooks meals for her children during breaks.

"The salary has helped me buy many things like cooking oil, rice and additional food to supplement the food aid we are getting," Begum told DW.

"In Myanmar, the security situation was not good for Rohingya, but in Bangladesh they are quite good at keeping us safe," she continued. "The food rations go up and down, but security is good."

Read more: 'I left my body there': A displaced Rohingya woman's story

Constant threats, constant preparation

Though Cyclone Fani spared the camps, the first major rainfall to hit Cox's Bazar this season affected 170 shelters, displacing a number of families, according to Gemma Snowdon, a communications officer for WFP. In addition to the SMEP preparations, constant work is needed to maintain reinforcement walls and humanitarian workers have been setting up storm shelters, as well as, providing cyclone preparedness training courses.

In recent months, Navin Karki, a site management officer for IOM, has also been distributing "tie-down kits" to help secure rooftops and minimize storm damage. He expressed fears financial support for such measures would diminish with time as the initial emergency response turns into a protracted crisis.

"If there is a lack of support from the international community, then it will be very difficult for everyone to continue their daily activities because these projects require constant upkeep," Karki told DW. "The need here is huge."

Read more: Rohingya children orphaned, not 'separated' from parents, study shows

Roshida Begum, a Rohingya mother of four, makes handles for plastic bags that will be used to transport soil as her children look on
Roshida Begum, a Rohingya mother of four, makes handles for plastic bags that will be used to transport soilImage: DW/D. Cupolo