Some 25,000 Rohingyas living in the camps built on the steep slopes of hills in Cox’s Bazar are in grave danger of mudslides during the coming monsoon.

Abdullah, who hailed from Buthidaung Township’s Kinisi village in Rakhine, built a shed at a steep slope in Balukhali area after fleeing Myanmar on September 19, 2017. Talking about his life in Bangladesh, he said: “When we came here [Cox’s Bazar], it was late autumn and the hills were quite inhabitable. “Now, we are in fear because of the monsoon, as the hilly areas become very dangerous for living during the rainy season due to the soft, unstable and slippery ground.”

The Rohingya refugee added: “We have heard about the measures taken by Bangladesh government and aid agencies regarding our relocation but no one has come to us yet. I am just worried for my six children, wife and my parents and feeling afraid thinking about the upcoming possible curse of the nature [monsoon].”

Apart from the refugees living on the slopes, about 175,000 Rohingyas living in the camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas would also face hardships in monsoon, a study by the government’s Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission said.

If these refugees are not relocated to a safe zone soon, many will fall victim to the coming inclement weather. According to the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry’s Rohingya Cell, nearly 700,000 displaced Rohingyas entered Bangladesh since August 25, 2017, joining about 400,000 others who were already living in squalid, cramped camps in Cox’s Bazar. However, the Rohingya influx still continues.

Recently, some experts from Dhaka University, Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and International Organisation for Migration carried out an assessment at the camps and found that up to one-third of the settlement areas could be flooded during the rainy seasons.

Shamsud Douza, additional commissioner at Cox’s Bazar-based Office of Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission, told the Dhaka Tribune: “Primarily, we are assuming that about 200,000 (including the ones living on slopes) people in the camps are at risk of mudslide and flood.”

Experts say mudslides will have a range of impacts like casualties and will also disrupt the aid distribution process, which majority of refugees depend on.

They said if the latrines, washrooms, and tube wells get flooded then it would lead to water contamination and cholera, worsening the living conditions in the camps.

Flooding increases the risk of disease outbreaks and could also threaten access to medical facilities also.

Andrew Kruczkiewicz, a climate researcher at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told the Dhaka Tribune: “The arrival of Rohingya has led to changes in land cover [deforestation and hill cutting] and its use [some farmers renting their agricultural land for people to build shelters]. These changes have impacts on the hydrology of the area, the type of hazards and the magnitude of risks.”

Raining calamities

Monitoring the impact in and around the camps during the pre-monsoon or cyclone season and monsoon season is important as to learn how risk has changed compared to the previous years. The experts suggest that the key stakeholders are needed to be included in the discussions to understand the complexity in which the Rohingyas and the host people are currently involved in.

Andrew said: “We are leveraging Nasa-funded project to explore the establishment of a global collaborative effort, whereby local and regional actors can collaborate with Nasa and other global research organisations to explore how to think about frameworks for short term and medium term disaster risk reduction.”

He said: “In other words, host communities could be at risk to new types of floods, such as flash floods, because of the changes in their environment, and they may not be aware of it. “Partners are working together to include those smaller camps and host communities in the risk assessments.”

Sexagenarian Latif Ahmad, who is living in Kutupalang Rohingya camp, said he was worried as the polythene-made tents lack the ability to face any natural calamity. The refugee from Maungdaw said: “After last year’s violence, we were sheltered in camps in Cox’s Bazar. In Burma [Myanmar], the army ruined us and here, we faced the curse of the weather like sudden rain and cold wave in January. Now, the monsoon is scaring us.”

The aid agencies fear that elderly and disabled people, infants and children, people suffering from malnutrition, pregnant women will mostly be affected in the season.

Saleha Begum of Maungdaw’s Hatipara said: “It was a forest when I first arrived here . I want to move from here [hills] before the monsoon. I do not know what I will do during the rains. It depends on Allah.”

Preparation for the monsoon

The government said the risky areas have been already marked with red flags and the members of Fire Brigade and Civil Defence, and Disaster Management and Relief Ministry have been campaigning to create awareness among the Rohingyas.

The government held a meeting with the aid organisations and the stakeholders regarding the matter on March 4. The decision to move the Rohingyas to a safer place by April 15 was taken in the meeting presided over by Disaster Management and Relief Ministry’s Secretary Md Shah Kamal. At the meeting, the speakers also pointed out that the safe places in the existing camps can only accommodate about 40,000 to 45,000 Rohingyas, so the government is thinking of moving the other vulnerable refugees to Bhashan Char by June.

The Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission said the vulnerable Rohingyas are being moved to camp number 17 and 18, where 5,035 refugees belonging to 1,188 families would be sheltered by April 15.

Besides, the most vulnerable people are being re-sheltered at safer locations in their present camps.

Apart from that, 100,000 Rohingyas will be sent to Bhashan Char and Bangladesh Navy has already started building houses and cyclone shelters for them following a specific model.

Another 540 acres of forest land, which lies in the north-west of the existing Kutupalong expansion camp in Ukhiya and Teknaf, was allocated for the relocation of Rohingyas at risk of natural calamity.

Cox’s Bazar Deputy Commissioner Md Kamal Hossain said: “The risk-prone Rohingya camps will be evicted and the Rohingyas will be relocated in the newly allocated lands. We have identified the vulnerable Rohingyas who would be directly subject to mudslide, cyclone, and tidal waves in the coming monsoon. RRRC [Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission] and aid agencies are working for the relocation. The aid organisations have already started levelling the hilly grounds of the newly allocated land.”

Andrew Kruczkiewicz said: “Overall, we were impressed with the coordination between IOM [International Organisation for Migration] and UNHCR and the other organisations. We understand that this is an ongoing situation with several unprecedented factors. Understanding how climate and weather information is used to support decision making was something that we see can be enhanced.”

Regarding core principles of the International Research Institute, he said: “I suggest you reach out to the protection working group of the Inter Sector Coordination Group, who recently organised training on key protection principles for facilitators in safety units. Training materials included general guiding principles, best practices, PSEA and technical knowledge on both Child Protection and Gender Based Violence victims. Following the Training of Trainers, relevant training sessions will be carried out by the trained facilitators at the field level in all camps for community volunteers.”

This article first appeared on the Dhaka Tribune.