Monsoon in Cox's Bazar: “Everything could collapse in an instant”
850,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will be facing the first rains under makeshift shelters. The forthcoming monsoon will be a major humanitarian challenge at Kutupalong camp where the health situation is liable to deteriorate and affect the well-being of children who are already vulnerable. To tackle this crisis, the camp’s population and NGOs are preparing for the severe weather and cyclones, which are renowned for being devastating in this region.
In south-eastern Bangladesh, the people and humanitarian workers are bracing themselves for the unparalleled rainfall and cyclones that occur between April to September in this part of the Bay of Bengal. Successive flooding of access roads to the Kutupalong camp, some of which are narrow slippery dirt tracks, will make it difficult to deliver aid to the 850,000 Rohingya who have fled the violence in Burma. 91% of these people now depend on humanitarian supplies. Families will soon face three major problems: access to food, finding a dry place to sleep and avoiding epidemics.
At present, malnutrition is the camp’s number one health problem. 400,000 children live in the camps. One quarter is malnourished, and most are under 5 years of age. “We have trained about 100 young Rohingya to identify serious cases of malnourishment. They crisscross the camp every day and refer these malnourished children to one of our seven nutrition centres. Between 2000 and 3000 sick children are being monitored at the moment,” explains Martin Morand, humanitarian emergency expert at Terre des hommes (Tdh). Problems in accessing food due to the severe weather and the limited range of food will increase the risk of acute malnutrition and death among an already vulnerable population.
The dilapidated shelters where the Rohingya live are in danger of deteriorating rapidly. The shelters are made of a simple bamboo structure that is pushed into the ground and then covered with plastic sheets which the water can trickle through. “It’s difficult to know in advance which shelters will or won't withstand the rain as this is the first monsoon in the now overcrowded camp. What we do know is that it will be a disaster. Everything could collapse or fly away in minutes. There are no foundations, nothing permanent has been built. We’re in the process of ensuring our health and childcare centres can provide proper cover when the most precarious shelters collapse. There is a strong likelihood that some places will become inaccessible and entire families will be cut off by the water. 75% of the walkways are in danger of collapsing. We will be storing building materials in our centres and getting the centres ready to receive anyone who is affected,” says Martin Morand.
After the cyclones, the refugees will need ropes, bamboo and tarpaulins. “We're stocking up on all of that. Trusted intermediaries will be able to provide access to building materials if the supply vehicles are unable to reach the people,” says Martin Morand.
In anticipation of the emergency, the Swiss child relief organisation is stocking up on mattresses, hygiene kits and dried food, as well as medical equipment to fight cholera, acute diarrhoea and dengue fever. The flooding will aggravate the health situation in the camp. The difficulty in managing organic and solid waste is one of the main causes of epidemics and the spread of disease.
About 30 waste disposal sites are needed to prevent water contamination, but land is scarce in this already crowded camp, which has more than 40,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. The first emergency latrines, which were designed to be covered up again, are not very deep. There is a substantial risk of the drinking water wells being contaminated by the contents of these latrines during the monsoon. Tdh is supervising the construction of latrines and deep wells and highlights the importance of hand-washing.
The contents of the latrines could also contaminate the rivers outside the camp through runoff and affect neighbouring Bangladeshi communities. Cholera could then spread to surrounding villages. “We must also work with the local population to help them come to terms with the situation,” observes Martin Morand.