Having just returned from a scoping mission to Cox's Bazar to see the environmental situation both inside and outside the Rohingya camps, I am going to share some thoughts on the immediate and long-term needs from an environmental perspective.
Before doing so, I would like to pay tribute to the people and government of Bangladesh as well as the international agencies and NGOs who have managed to handle the immediate humanitarian crisis extremely well under the circumstances.
If one were to look at a satellite image of the Cox's Bazar region from early last year, one would see forests in which wild elephants roamed. The same picture today will show a city of over 700,000 people where there was once a forest. This has happened almost within a blink of an eye!
However, while the immediate need was to find shelter, provide food and medicine as well as water and sanitation to the incoming Rohingya, the time has come to move from the immediate crisis management stage to a slightly longer-term vision. This needs to be done both within as well as outside the camps.
I will describe the major environmental issues and suggest some actions for each one.
Upcoming monsoon rains
This is by far the biggest danger looming in the next few months, with the makeshift shelters perched on sloping hills that are most vulnerable to landslide. This is a problem that is quite predictable, and hence needs a priority action plan to be implemented urgently.
The elements of such a plan can include relocation of the most vulnerable, improving their housing and drainage conditions, and most importantly, building human resilience to enable the people themselves to be better prepared when the problem inevitably occurs.
This is also true for possible cyclones as there are hardly enough cyclone shelters for the local population, let alone for the lakhs of newcomers. Hence, an urgent cyclone and flood preparedness programme needs to be undertaken, drawing on the significant capacity that already exists among the government, its development partners and NGOs.
This is the second major problem and consists of the denudation of several thousand hectares of forestland to house the Rohingya in camps as well as the ongoing cutting of trees for firewood for cooking.
While the allocation of forestland for the camps could be justified, the ongoing deforestation needs to be addressed, as it is spreading the seeds of environmental degradation well outside the camps also.
The immediate need is to identify and supply an alternative fuel source. While more environment-friendly sources should be explored moving forward, the best immediate option may be LPG (as required).
One associated problem has been the human settlement on wild elephant trails which has already resulted in a number of deaths by trampling. This needs to be addressed through a more careful allocation of camp areas and fencing to divert the elephants.
Water and sanitation in the camps
This is the third most important issue both for supply of drinking water through tube-wells and toilets for defacation. The main challenge is human faecal waste management, which needs to be done more scientifically in “closed treatment” rather than “open treatment.”
I saw a couple of excellent closed faecal waste management systems in Kutupalong camp done by Practical Action. Many more of these are needed urgently to replace the existing open systems that are there now.
Regional and longer-term approach
The final issue is the need to move from an ad hoc crisis management mode of reactive interventions to a more systematic and planned approach. In this regard, I would like to propose setting up of a National Environmental Expert Group with local and international experts who can develop an environmental management plan, and more importantly, monitor it and report to the higher authorities on a regular basis.
This can easily be done through platforms like Gobeshona which has already brought together over 50 public and private universities, research institutes and NGOs from Bangladesh and abroad. Such a group should have a mandate to monitor the environment both inside as well as outside the camps.
To sum up, while the massive influx of the Rohingya refugees into Cox's Bazaar region was unexpected, the resulting environmental problems are quite predictable, and hence we need to urgently address this issue in a much more systematic and coordinated way. The Bangladeshi scientific community stands ready to do its bit.
Saleemul Huq is Director, International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh.