At least 100,000 Rohingya huddling in squalid refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh could be in grave danger from landslides and floods, the U.N.’s refugee agency warned Friday as it ramped up efforts to blunt expected impacts of coming monsoonal rains.
UNHCR issued the warning a day after U.N. special rapporteur Yangee Lee raised serious concerns about the possible devastation faced by about 600,000 refugees sheltering in low-lying land interspersed with rolling hills in the settlement camps.
“The findings of an initial risk analysis, mapping the world’s largest refugee settlement area in Kutapalong and Balukhali, which shelters more than 569,000 refugees, indicate that at least 100,000 refugees could be in grave danger from landslides and floods,” UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said in a statement.
The sheer volume of refugee arrivals since late August 2017 – relief agencies estimate that 688,000 Rohingya crossed over from Myanmar – has added strain to the local environment because more trees are being cut down to make space for the newcomers, according to experts.
“Trees and roots used to keep the soil compact,” Faisal, a local environmentalist, told BenarNews. “As there are no more trees, rain will now fall straight on the surface, erode soil and cause landslide and flooding.”
Heavy rains usually hit Bangladesh from mid-April to October, authorities said.
Mahecic said UNHCR had worked with experts at Dhaka University and other agencies, including the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, to carry out the assessment. It concludes that up to one-third of the settlement areas could be flooded.
More than 85,000 refugees could lose their shelters made up of bamboo poles and tarpaulins, and another 23,000 refugees living on steep slopes within the site could be at risk of landslides, Mahecic said.
Environmentalists say Bangladesh is prone to flooding because it is on the Ganges Delta, one of the world’s largest river distributaries that takes heavy runoff from the melting snows of the Himalayas.
The sprawling refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar district that were covered by dense forest have been stripped of vegetation, according to Faisal, an environmental consultant working for an NGO at the camps, who said he agreed with UNHCR’s assessment.
When refugees arrived in large numbers last year, he said, many even dug out the roots of trees and used them for fuel.
Faisal, who uses only one name, said the camps were so congested that a collapse of a small hill would affect at least three layers of camps.
During the first weeks after late August, when Rohingya refugees arrived from Myanmar in Bangladesh, there was little time to plan the location or construction of dwellings, according to the UNHCR.
Last month, the agency distributed stronger load-bearing bamboo poles as part of construction kits to help the refugees build more robust structures.
Refugees express worries
Abdus Sadiq, a 25-year-old refugee living at one of the settlements, said he worried that his shelter could not handle the monsoon rains.
“We do not know how many of the rooms would survive,” he told BenarNews. “But it is better to die in natural calamities than die in the hands of the Myanmar military and the Moghs (vigilante Buddhists).”
Around 1 million Rohingya refugees are sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh, including the nearly 700,000 who fled their homes in Myanmar since late August 2017 amid a brutal military crackdown. It followed attacks on government security posts by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents.
Refugees have accused Myanmar soldiers, backed by their vigilante neighbors they derisively call “Moghs,” of committing killings, rapes, and arson in their villages.
Lee, the U.N. rapporteur who visited Bangladesh and interviewed Rohingya refugees earlier this month, told reporters in Seoul on Thursday that Dhaka’s failure to prepare the refugee camps for the monsoon season would “result in a disaster within a disaster for the Rohingya.”
On Nov. 12, 1970, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones recorded in history pummeled Bangladesh – then known as East Pakistan – killing about 500,000 people, according to official figures, mostly as a result of a storm surge that flooded the low-lying islands of the Ganges Delta.
“A day of rain could trigger landslides and flood lowlands decimating shelters, and could lead to casualties,” Lee said.