As humanitarian agencies in Bangladesh race against the clock to prepare one of the world’s largest refugee camps for the onslaught of the upcoming monsoon season, they are calling for more support from international donors such as Canada to scale up their lifesaving work.
The United Nation’s International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 150,000 Rohingya in the community of Cox’s Bazar face life-threatening risks from landslides and floods, and thousands more are at risk of disease and being cut off from assistance.
The United Nations’ joint response plan launched last month calls for $951 million US to assist 1.3 million people, including 884,000 Rohingya refugees and 336,000 host community members.
The UN says it needs urgent funding to meet life-saving and acute humanitarian needs of refugees as well as affected host communities.
David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, said the situation in the camps and in the host communities is extremely serious.
“It’s a horrific situation and Canada has a chance to lead,” Morley said in a phone interview from Dhaka, following his visit to the Cox’s Bazar area near the border with Myanmar.
(click to listen to the full interview with David Morley)Listen
Vulnerable to landslides
Usually, humanitarian agencies prefer to set up camps in relatively flat places but the camps around Cox’s Bazar have sprung up on a hilly terrain that is prone to landslides and flash floods, Morley said.
“We know that over the next few weeks the monsoon rain will come so we’re very fearful that that’s going to be another disaster,” Morley said.
The money raised by the appeal will go to respond to food and nutrition needs, water and sanitation, and health and various other sectors, said Dipayan Bhattacharyya, the World Food Programme’s Deputy Country Director in Bangladesh, who was in Ottawa earlier this week for meetings with Global Affairs Canada officials.
Bhattacharyya said the densely populated Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, which has become the fourth largest city in Bangladesh, is particularly vulnerable to landslides, flooding and hurricane-strength winds brought by tropical cyclones.
(click to listen to the full interview with Dipayan Bhattacharyya)Listen
‘Devoid of any vegetation’ and densely populated
The camp has about 680,000 people crammed into an area of about 14 square kilometres, giving it a population density of about 50,000 per square kilometre, Bhattacharyya said.
For comparison, Ottawa has a population density of about 400 people per square kilometre.
“Just imagine 400 per square kilometre in Ottawa and 50,000 per square kilometre in this Kutupalong mega-camp,” Bhattacharyya said.
“This entire area is devoid of any vegetation, it’s an undulating surface, so essentially this soil, which is, essentially, completely exposed and any normal rainfall can already cause a very difficult situation there.”
The area around Cox’s Bazar receives pretty high levels of rainfall during monsoon season, Bhattacharyya said. In addition, in the pre-monsoon months in April and May and the post-monsoon period in October and November, the area gets battered by tropical cyclones, he added.
Working to reinforce the camp
In #Bangladesh, WFP Engineering is creating safe, level land in the Kutupalong camp, to which @UNmigration and @Refugees can relocate vulnerable families.
Watch WFP Deputy Chief Engineer, Michael Ryan explaining more. ⏯▶ pic.twitter.com/jMkC3yUXGr
— World Food Programme (@WFP) 18 April 2018
Thousands of workers backed up by heavy earth-moving machinery are working to flatten significant areas of the camp, reinforce hill slopes and roads to mitigate the risks of landslides and flash floods, Bhattacharyya said.
The WFP and its sister agencies are also working to preposition supplies and bring their logistical hubs as close as possible to the camps to make sure that they can serve them throughout the monsoon season, he said.
“If there are problems in terms of sending food by trucks we even have organized porters,” Bhattacharyya said. “There would be a porter chain and these porters would be able then to send food to the affected families.”
Canada provided assistance to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh from the first days of the crisis, said Bhattacharyya, who last August witnessed the influx of refugees fleeing unimaginable violence in neighbouring Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The Canadian funding has gone towards supporting an innovative electronic voucher, which provides refugees with electronic voucher cards and allows them to shop for the products they need at participating shops, Bhattacharyya said.
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The Canadian money has also supported a specialized nutritional program that targets lactating mothers and children under five and their families, Bhattacharyya said.
Morley said Canadian funding has also supported life-saving vaccination programs for refugee children many of whom had never seen a doctor in their native Myanmar.
“It’s a sign of the exclusion that the Rohingya have been facing in Myanmar, that they hadn’t even been able to get simple standard level of vaccination,” Morley said.
The vaccination campaigns against measles, diphtheria and cholera have ensured that there hasn’t been another outbreak in the camps, Morley said.