The 2021 monsoon rains have caused chaos this week for the 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in the hilly, muddy camps at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Day after day, the rains have continued, and we’ve witnessed drains become streams become raging torrents.
And then last week, these rains sparked powerful floods, which have washed away people’s homes, food and livelihoods, and landslides, which have killed 20 people (including six children). For the Rohingya who fled conflict in the Rakhine State in 2017 and in just the last year have experienced raging camp fires and the COVID-19 pandemic, this is just the latest challenge.
An unprecedented emergency in an area where emergencies are the precedent
Floods in this country are nothing new: 75% of Bangladesh sits below sea level. Last year’s floods submerged more than 25% of the country. But in the last two weeks, the rains have been even heavier than usual. For the last four years, I’ve worked in Cox’s Bazar with Concern and I’ve not seen anything like this before — it’s by far the worst.
“I’ve not seen anything like this before — it’s by far the worst.”
We are now in an emergency situation. The refugee camp is built on hills, and due to this terrain flash floods have caused landslides. Shelters built on the hills were brought down in the landslides; sadly, people died. In one camp where Concern works, we lost five people in just one family. The flood waters have been very high: Around some people’s homes in the lowlands, it has reached four or five feet over their homes.
A quick recession, but a long recovery
While the floodwaters recede reasonably quickly in some areas because of the closeness to the river and sea, the damage has been done. Family shelters and belongings have been destroyed by the water. They’ve lost cooking utensils, blankets, clothing, and dry food that they’ve been storing (including rice, pulses, and lentils). These items are not easily replaced.
In some areas, the water doesn’t recede as quickly. Here, landslides have caused water-logging, as the fallen soil from the hills creates a dam. For these communities, it means that water gets stuck and can’t drain away easily. Worryingly, fresh water points and toilets were also damaged by the floods. There’s now a real risk of water-borne diseases such as diarrhea.
As part of Concern’s work with people in the Rohingya camps and host communities, we provide support in the form of home gardens. These allow people to grow food that they couldn’t otherwise afford; occasionally enough is even left over for them to sell at market to create an income for themselves. It’s heartbreaking to see 70% of these gardens damaged in the wake of rains, floods, and water logging, especially in the harvest season as many have lost crops that they had yet to pick.
Gone from the headlines, but not from reality
Concern is responding to the July 2021 floods in Bangladesh, providing emergency dry food items such as rice cakes, sugar, biscuits, bread, honey, and bottled water. We’re also providing people with hygiene and health kits, and non-food items as requested by local authorities in response to the floods.
But we need additional funds to assist more people. Like so many protracted crises, funding often drops as these emergencies shrink from the headlines. But just because they are no longer on Page One of the newspaper doesn’t mean that they no longer pose a threat. In many cases, they get worse.
The people of Cox’s Bazar are frustrated; all of this is tough on them. There was a massive fire in the refugee camp earlier this year, which caused many Rohingya to lose their shelters and (very modest) belongings. Most were not able to rebuild their shelters in time to prepare for the rainy season, so they’ve had no protection against these floods, and are almost entirely dependent on organizations like Concern for basic necessities.
There’s a further complication in all of this with the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh. As of this writing, we are in the middle of a two-week, nationwide lockdown mandated by the government. On Monday, July 26, Bangladesh registered the highest number of new coronavirus cases and deaths within a single day.
Like so many protracted crises, funding often drops as these emergencies shrink from the headlines. But just because they are no longer on Page One of the newspaper doesn’t mean that they no longer pose a threat. In many cases, they get worse.
These lockdowns have also affected people in the local host community, who haven’t been able to work. Cox’s Bazar is a tourist area, and many of its inhabitants depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Those who didn’t lose their livelihoods to COVID-19 have lost them with lost livestock, poultry, and fish — or in their rice fields, which have been flooded during cultivation season. Not only does this threaten income, but it also means that the security that comes from knowing that there will be food on the table in the coming months has been wiped out.
We know the rains come each year, but this year has been like no other. Having overcome so much in the last several years, the Rohingya are beginning to rebuild once again, supported by organizations like Concern. We need to work together to make sure people are able to prepare in time for increasingly severe rains, support them in doing so, and help them recover when the unexpected happens.