After escaping shocking violence in Myanmar, almost 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are now confronted with potentially devastating monsoon rains this summer. As many as 150,000 people are at direct risk and live in run-down shelters in areas prone to flooding and landslides.
“We are faced with an unplanned community of 700.000 people,” states Saleemul Huq, a climate change expert from Bangladesh. “They came out of the blue, and now we have to figure out a way how to help them. So far we have been feeding them, clothing them, giving them medical assistance, and somehow they’re surviving. But once the monsoon season truly starts, the way these shelters are built up on the hills, they will just collapse. They won’t be able to survive.”
The rainy season in Bangladesh usually runs from May to October, and already the first rains in the refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, in the southeast of Bangladesh, have turned the roads into mud paths and streams. Meteorologists predict more than 23 inches of rain in the region in the month of July alone, that is as much rain as the UK receives in a whole year.
A troubled location
The unique geographical location of Bangladesh, in the Bay of Bengal in South Asia, makes it particularly vulnerable to the heavy cyclones that plague the area during the monsoon season. The population of Rohingya refugees in the camps in Bangladesh has also tripled since the last monsoon season. Between 100,000 and 150,000 refugees have a direct risk of losing their provisional shelter due to flooding and landslides.
Hundreds of thousands are likely to be separated from the emergency services due to rising water. About a third of the health posts in the Kutupalong-Balukhali mega camp will become unusable – a situation that can be fatal for the most vulnerable refugee groups.
“Much of the heavy weather in the wider South Asia region will eventually affect the risk of flooding in Bangladesh,” says Binod Parajuli, a scientific expert on risk management and flood prevention at the Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience (HI-AWARE) Research facility. “Nepal, for example, being a Northern neighbouring country and upstream from the Bangladesh river basin, will cause its intense rainfall to further contribute to the high waters in the Bangladeshi delta.”
Nowhere to hide
Moreover, the makeshift shelters in the refugee camps are very vulnerable to the extreme weather. Refugees have built them with whatever materials they could find, such as bamboo and cloth, which are not resistant to driving rain and heavy wind. The newcomers in the camps had no choice but to strip the land from the vegetation, even the roots, to use as fuel, causing the soil to be extremely susceptible to erosion and a serious risk for landslides on the overcrowded hills.
In recent months, local emergency services have already been busy to move as many people as possible away from the low-lying areas, and a series of emergency measures has already been communicated to the refugee community. For example, families are advised to provide their children with a bracelet that helps to identify them, and to keep all food, medicines and identification documents in one central place in a watertight bag.
As of the 10th of June, the rain in the Rakhine state has become nearly continuous, and so far the damages already include: 1,000 shelters, 10 water points, 167 latrines, one health facility, and one food distribution site. The rains have also flooded the main road through the Kutupalong settlement, temporarily blocking vehicle access to parts of the site. “This is only the beginning, we can not stay here,” a refugee told the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
With Rain comes Disease
The upcoming rainy season won’t only bring flooding and landslides, a lot of diseases and parasites also pop up because of the large amount of stagnant water that piles up in the region. In January, a diphtheria outbreak in the camp affected about 6,600 refugees. An extensive vaccination campaign succeeded in curbing the epidemic, but the extreme weather, the overcrowded shelters and the lack of well-functioning health facilities would make an outbreak uncontrollable during the rainy season.
“After the very likely event of a disaster, such as a flood, hitting the region, a series of ensuing secondary disasters, like the spread of disease, might follow its trail,” explains Binod Parajuli.
Existing emergency services expect the number of cases of cholera, hepatitis A and E to rise, and have already set up mobile medical teams to support areas that are difficult to reach.
Whether the rainy season will also unleash cyclones upon Bangladesh is unpredictable, but very likely. Furthermore, climate change has increased the intensity and frequency of cyclones and hurricanes worldwide. For example, in May 2017, cyclone Mora already destroyed the province of Rakhine and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where most Rohingya refugees now find themselves, and caused the worst landslide in 10 years. More than 50,000 homes were destroyed, and three million people were affected.
“What’s going to happen to the Rohingya refugee community in the coming months is very predictable,” says Saleemul Huq. “We need to be ready for it. We now have to start thinking beyond humanitarian assistance.”
Earlier this month, however, there was a glimmer of hope on the part of international politics: the government of Myanmar and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came to an agreement that should help facilitate the return of displaced Rohingya refugees to the country. The Memorandum of Understanding sets the conditions that would allow hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to voluntarily and safely return to their homes in the country’s Rakhine province. Two key conditions for the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya to Myanmar are citizenship rights and an end to violence.
It is still very uncertain, however, if the security of the ethnic minority in their home country can be guaranteed, and whether the Rohingya even want to return home after tens of thousands were killed by the army.
So far, the Rohingya have not been granted any level of citizenship, or citizenship rights, forming a major impediment to their return home.
Climate and Migration
The causes of the Rohingya refugee crisis have everything to do with politics, and have little to do with the environment, climate change or natural disasters. Once the Rohingya were expelled from Myanmar and settled along the fragile coastline of Bangladesh, however, the climate became one more threat for the refugee community.
The location of the refugee camps, Cox’s Bazar, is recognized as one of the most climate sensitive locations in Bangladesh, and possibly one of the most vulnerable places in the world for climate change, in the form of rising sea levels, irregular rain patterns and increasingly powerful cyclones.
Although the original flight of the Rohinya refugees is deeply rooted in the political misdeeds of Myanmar, and was driven by excessive violence, the next step in their migration story will now also be determined by the climate.