The real risks of rainy season for refugees

The real risks of rainy season for refugees

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Step Haiselden

Monsoons and cyclones threaten lives of refugees from Myanmar

If you had visited Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on a hot, sunny Friday at the end of March this year you could be forgiven for thinking that life in one of the world’s largest refugee settlements is remarkably calm. Men are in the mosques, women sweltering in their bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelters, and aid workers enjoying a well-earned day off. Only the children playing on the slopes between the shelters are visible.

But hundreds of thousands of refugees from Myanmar are living in dire conditions here. They fled mass violence, losing their belongings and loved ones along the way. They lack sufficient medical and psychological support, shelter, food, water and sanitation facilities. Now the situation could become even worse. The veneer of tranquillity seen on that Friday in March will be disrupted by the start of the heavy rains that typically last until October. The rains will rapidly turn the camp into a quagmire and the refugees, knee deep in mud, will struggle to move around the camp. The rains will destabilize slopes already denuded of much of the vegetation that might otherwise have held them together. Mudslides and flooding are expected. It’s likely that people will be injured or even killed. I deployed to Bangladesh to support the CARE team with monsoon and cyclone preparedness planning.

Like other organizations working in the Cox’s Bazar camps, CARE’s team works hard to reduce the vulnerability of the refugees during the monsoon season. CARE is responsible for around 5,000 refugee families and another 100 families belonging to the Bangladeshi host community. All of them are living in Camp #16 toward the southern end of the closely clustered camps. We are making shelters stronger and relocating people to safer areas of the camp. We want to help people respond to heavy rains and potential flooding. What really worries all of us, though, is the possibility that the camp will be struck by a cyclone in the coming months. Unlike the monsoon season, cyclones do not always occur. But the Cox’s Bazar coastline has been devastated by cyclones many times. Cyclone Bhola in 1970, for instance, killed more than 500,000 people – the size of Scotland’s capital Edinburgh. Bhola was also the impetus behind the construction of the robust cyclone shelters that have since saved countless lives while doubling up as schools on a normal day.

But there are no cyclone shelters in the Cox’s Bazar camps. In fact there is not a single building that might be expected to withstand the direct impact of a large cyclone. For the 900,000 refugees currently in the camps, evacuation isn’t an option as aid agencies simply do not have the means to organize mass evacuations within two days’ notice of an impending cyclone. While humanitarian agencies have been lobbying for better cyclone preparedness, it’s clear that nothing significant will be achievable this year. There are too many shelters to build and not enough time, land or funding. Future construction in the camps must include robust, concrete-framed schools, mosques and health centers that can also serve as cyclone shelters in the years to come. In the meantime, there is a very real danger that the refugees in Cox’s Bazar will suffer a similar fate to the Bangladeshis when Cyclone Bhola made landfall almost 50 years ago.

At Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, many refugee shelters are perilously perched on steep hillsides — a dangerous spot during heavy rains. Credit: Nancy Farese/CARE