A 35-year-old Rohingya mom and her 4-month-old baby forced to flee to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 25, 2017.
(Russell Watkins/Department for International Development)
Nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslims have fled persecution in Myanmar, only to face new threats compounded by climate change in Bangladesh. These stateless people, deemed illegal in two countries, are in immediate danger from the extreme weather of a warming atmosphere.
Two-thirds of Bangladesh lie less than 16 feet above sea level. It is bordered to the south by the Bay of Bengal and intersected by a plethoric web of rivers engorged by rapidly melting snow in the Himalayas.
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) estimates that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. EJF calculates that sea level rise could submerge more than 10 percent of the country’s land mass by mid-century. Global warming has intensified the seasonal monsoons as well.
In August 2017, 200,000 Rohingya had settled in Bangladesh, escaping what the UN calls a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Since then, 700,000 more have come. NPR called it the “fastest human displacement since the Rwandan genocide.”
Nearly all of the new arrivals have gone to Cox’s Bazar, a seaside town in Southern Bangladesh. The refugee camps there offer safety from the Myanmar army but little else.
Southern Bangladesh receives an average of 12 feet of rain a year. This makes it one of the wettest parts of an already waterlogged country. Pre-monsoon rainfall in the region has increased an inch every five years for the last 50 years. The recent monsoons in Bangladesh “fit a pattern of rising uncertainties and rainfall extremes,” director of the Red Crescent Climate Center, Maarten van Aalst, said. Around Cox’s Bazar, he said, “we have triple jeopardy: a routine seasonal risk very possibly exacerbated by climate change and certainly by displacement on a massive scale.”
Diplomats at the United Nations Security Council warned Rohingya refugees are in “a crisis within a crisis.” They are “living on sandcastles,” the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR said, reporting that “large areas of the camp were underwater” after monsoon rains began in June.
Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camp is the largest in the world. Human Rights Watch found that the megacamp is severely overcrowded. The recommended international standard of usable space is 45 square meters per person. In the camp, there is an average of 10.7 square meters per person. The density of the camp poses a number of risks—from communicable diseases and sexual violence to the increased stress on unstable land and the decreasing availability of building space.
Steep slopes and little vegetation make up Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Nov. 24, 2017.
(Russell Watkins/Department for International Development)
“One of the greatest threats facing the Rohingya refugees is the land itself,” according to NPR’s Jason Beaubien. “They’ve built makeshift shelters on steep, sandy hillsides.”
Much of the camp’s shelters are built on slopes of 40 to 45 degrees, a gradient which UNHCR calculated gives them an 80 percent chance of collapsing during heavy rain.
Most refugees live in shelters raised from thatch, sticks and tarpaulin, and most cook only over open flames. As a result of this demand for wood, the Rohingya have massively denuded thousands of acres of national forests surrounding the camps in Bangladesh. “The equivalent of three to five football fields of forest are felled every day in the area,” which was already under “significant pressure” before the influx, senior environmental coordinator for UNHCR, Andrea Dekrout, said.
Bangladeshi authorities insist that the camps are temporary. The government of Bangladesh does not plan to integrate Rohingya refugees with the local population. This, however, contributes to the poor conditions in the camps. The government has blocked the construction of permanent structures and has not allowed for other infrastructure that would suggest a longer-term stay.
The Guardian reported in June that at least 500 refugees had been injured after their shacks collapsed in this year’s monsoon rains. There had been 37 landslides by that time and three recorded deaths, including a toddler whose mother was also injured. On July 25, five children were killed in flooding and landslides.
Though some efforts have been made by aid agencies to strengthen huts and develop safety plans, residents remain highly vulnerable. “People and their makeshift shelters are being washed away in the rains,” Mohammed Manun, an area site manager for the International Organization for Migration, said. “We are racing to save lives.” As monsoon season began in June, however, the organization’s relief operations had only been 22 percent funded.
Additionally, a road through the camp, constructed by the Bangladeshi army and used to transport essential medical supplies, has been severely damaged by the monsoon, a UNICEF spokesperson said.
Monsoon season lasts from June to October. The risk for tropical cyclones that come up from the Bay of Bengal is greatest from October to November. There is concern that the overcrowded camps are a “sitting target” for cyclones.
“We’ve been informed that the government would not really allow the refugees to leave the camp to seek safety,” Julia Brothwell, program manager for the British Red Cross said. “You have nowhere for the people to flee to that’s safe.” With such widespread vulnerability, a direct cyclone hit would be “catastrophic” for refugees and Bangladeshis alike, she warned.
According to ACAPS, a humanitarian service formed by the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children, there are insufficient shelters and no plans to evacuate the refugees.
Many latrines have overflowed and been washed away as hills collapsed in flash floods, carrying contaminated water through the camps. “We’re already seeing increases in acute water diarrhea, and the risk of an outbreak of waterborne diseases is now a serious likelihood,” Sanjeev Kafley, head of the Cox’s Bazar office of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told Reuters in June.
Firewood is scarce and soaked by the monsoons. It is a poor fuel source at best and a dangerous source of air pollution for the camp population and beyond. Younger, greener fuel is the only option now that so much forest has been depleted. It produces higher levels of smoke, which is then trapped in refugees’ confined living spaces.
The UN has objected to a plan put forward by Bangladesh to relocate at least 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. Nonetheless, the Bangladesh navy and Chinese construction crews are preparing the remote island of Bhasan Char for the arrival of refugees from Cox’s Bazar.
During high tides, most of Bhasan Char floods. Experts predict that the island, which formed less than 20 years ago from ever-shifting river silt, could be completely submerged in the event of a cyclone. It does not appear suitable for human habitation.
The UN and Myanmar signed a pact in June of this year to begin repatriating refugees, though there has been no substantial change to the persecution and lack of recognition Rohingya face there. Many refugees are too afraid to return home. “I would rather drink poison than go back to Myanmar,” a Rohingya woman who lost 29 family members in a government attack told NPR’s Jason Beaubien.
Myanmar has made reporting on the crisis nearly impossible. International reporting, like Reuters Pulitzer prize winning photo essays on the exodus, has been and continues to be essential in giving voice to this long-suffering population. It is especially necessary coverage as cyclones like Mangkhut move threateningly through Asia.