Bangladesh has started distributing cooking gas cylinders to Rohingya refugees in response to scientists’ warnings that an environmental disaster could engulf camps where about 1 million people have been sheltering and using firewood from nearby forests for fuel, officials said Monday.
Forest denudation in Cox’s Bazar, a southeastern district that borders Myanmar, was an indirect consequence of a brutal military crackdown launched in the neighboring country last August, according to scientists and environmental conservationists.
“The Rohingya completely depend on firewood for cooking,” Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, chief of the Rohingya section at the ministry of disaster management, told BenarNews.
“Since last month, we have started providing them gas cylinders,” he said. “In the first phase, we have targeted to provide cylinders to 11,000 families.”
After deadly attacks on police outposts by Rohingya insurgents in Rakhine state, Myanmar security forces mounted counter-offensives that drove about 700,000 Rohingya to flee to safety in Bangladesh. Another 300,000 Rohingya, most of them undocumented, have also been living in Cox’s Bazar after fleeing earlier bouts of conflict in northern Rakhine.
The rate of the unprecedented refugee influx created an environmental crisis in Bangladesh’s border district because of the Rohingyas’ dependency on firewood for cooking, officials said. Refugees have cut down trees and stripped away 1,650 hectares of forest land, according to the nation’s forestry department.
What used to be lush forest hills in Cox’s Bazar has been replaced by denuded mounds pockmarked with blue tarpaulin sheets on top of makeshift shelters, environmental activists said.
The government project’s first phase is continuing and, depending on its impact, the second phase will involve thousands of families receiving gas cylinders, Chowdhury said.
He said the Indian government had shown interest in providing kerosene and stoves for the refugees.
“But we cannot accept the offer at this moment. This is because they want to give us loose kerosene. We do not have any depot near the refugee camps,” he said, explaining that distributing kerosene in congested refugee camps could be a difficult and dangerous task.
Danesh Mian, director of Institute of Forestry and Environmental Science at Chittagong University, told reporters in October 2017 that clearing forest and hills for firewood and settlements in Cox’s Bazar could threaten bio-diversity and spawn landslides during the monsoon season.
“We fear rare animals such as the Asian elephant … might get extinct,” he said.
Refugees burn more than 1 million pounds of wood daily
Environmental activists applauded Dhaka’s move to distribute gas cylinders to the refugees, explaining that the Rohingya were burning at least one-half million kilograms (more than 1 million pounds) of dry wood daily.
Mohammad Abul Kalam, Bangladesh’s refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told BenarNews that the international NGO Caritas had been providing funds for supplying gas cylinders to the refugees.
“With support from other agencies, the UNHCR has been thinking of providing gas cylinders to several thousands of families in the second phase,” Kalam said, referring to the U.N.’s refugee agency.
“We cannot save forests in Ukhia, Teknaf and neighboring areas if we cannot provide alternative fuel,” he said.
A BenarNews correspondent who visited a Rohingya camp last month saw massive deforestation in Ukhia and Teknaf areas in Cox’s Bazar and the neighboring Bandarban district.
Hundreds of Rohingya leave the camps in the mornings to cut down trees in the forest, returning around midday with bundles of firewood.
Because of a huge demand for cooking fuel, makeshift shops have mushroomed at every corner of the refugee camps.
Shah Alam, who lives at the Kutupalong refugee camp, told BenarNews that his seven-member family would consume at least five kilograms (11 pounds) of firewood every day to cook food.
“I have to spend 150 taka (about U.S. $2) every day if I buy firewood. So, we just go to the forest to gather it,” he said.
Another refugee, Mahmudul Islam, said each Rohingya man would chop off trees every day, a chore that could take at least five hours.
Asked why he chopped down the whole tree, instead of merely cutting its branches for firewood, Islam replied: “If I do not cut it, some other people will.”
As of October 2017, forest resources valued at about 1.5 billion Bangladeshi taka (U.S. $18 million) had been destroyed to accommodate the latest influx of refugees, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Farid Uddin Ahmed, executive director of the Bangladesh Tropical Forest Conservation Foundation, a joint initiative of the Bangladesh and the U.S. governments, told BenarNews that the Cox’s Bazar area had many special trees, such as Dhakijam, Chapalish, Gorjon and Gamari.
Alarmed by the forest denudation, the United Nations issued warnings in February that flash floods from monsoonal rains could wash away fragile shelters in congested camps in Cox’s Bazar, threatening about 100,000 refugees.
“Since the arrival of the Rohingya, many forest lands in Ukhia and Teknaf have been destroyed,” Ahmed said. “The refugees have been cutting big trees for firewood, but the harsh truth is they have no other option.”
“If a family burns five kilograms of dry wood per day, 100,000 families will burn half a million kilograms of dried wood,” he said. “How long we can protect the forest in the region if cutting of trees goes on in this scale?”