Learn about the work Practical Action is doing in the Rohingya camps to establish an integrated approach for addressing environmental risk
It has been two years of the recent Rohingya crisis in Cox’s Bazar, and its associated impacts have only increased exponentially over the course of this time. Sprouting into multidimensional issues, environmental degradation has been at the heart of it all. Since the recent crisis emerged in mid-2017, over 700,000 displaced people from Myanmar (commonly known as Rohingya people) sought refuge in different areas of Ukhiya and Teknaf sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh (UNHCR, 2018). The presence of such a large human settlement has had a dramatic effect on the ecosystem of Ukhiya and Teknaf, putting a strain on the already stretched resources in the region.
The immediate environmental impacts were manifested in the form of deforestation, loss of vegetation, consequently increasing the risk of landslides and flooding, accumulation of enormous volume of all kinds of waste without adequate disposal and management facilities, and the risk of fire hazards. An analysis conducted by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, ICCCAD, shows that a total of 1,684 hectares of vegetation coverage has been lost from February 2017 to November 2018. Changes in the terrain due to the removal of soils and terrain have been ranked as high risks among the physical environmental impacts. What were almost undisputed stretches of mud hills and vegetation have now been reduced to undulating terrain with soft soil, after being indiscriminately cut back to create rudimentary terraces for temporary shelters. Trees have also been cut down to serve as cooking fuel and for timber usage. Nevertheless, the report also forecasts that most of the physical environmental impacts might be reversible, while those on soils and terrain would take extensive time to be restored to their former glory (MoEF; UNDP; UN Women, 2018).
Rapid Environmental Assessment Study conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) of Bangladesh, UNDP and UN Women detected that soil and terrain along with the conditions of groundwater, surface water, acoustic levels, indoor air quality and solid waste management have been severely impacted after the Rohingya influx. The crisis has also set Bangladesh behind in their stride towards combating climate change. The Teknaf peninsula is an ecologically critical area. The protected Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the oldest reserved forests in Bangladesh, plays a pivotal role in combating climate change.
Water and sanitation situation in the camps have been particularly appalling. More than six thousand water points and fifty thousand latrines have been installed so far. However, water scarcity is still present and the available water does not always meet the safety standards, exposing the inhabitants to the risk of frequent outbreaks of water-borne diseases. More than 30% of latrines installed were located less than 10 metres from a water source. Poor solid waste management practices have added to the list of already pressing environmental issues. Open waste disposal is also widely prevalent at the camps and the lack of proper waste management and the drainage system has further aggravated the situation. Physicians for Human Rights (2010) reported an alarming situation from their on-foot observation, with accounts of children playing and crawling next to raw sewage. Due to the absence of a proper waste management mechanism in place, the camp dwellers bury or burn their wastes, leading to residual toxic components being added to the soil and the emission of hazardous gas when wastes are burnt in an open environment. There are a number of organizations which are trying to address the situation such as UNHCR, Oxfam, BRAC, and UNDP but there is a lot that remains to be done and can only be achieved through integrated efforts.
Cox’s Bazar is inherently a disaster-prone area and with the incumbent environmental crisis, the risk of disasters has increased by manifolds. Due to the high number of people living in such close proximity, there is a greater need for fast and effective assistance in the event of a disaster as well as assistance to reduce vulnerability and risk exposure through preventative approaches. Poor and marginalized groups within the communities are particularly vulnerable to hazards and less able to cope.
The Rohingya crisis presents diverse challenges, however, isolated approaches may not be the solution here. Even a comprehensive approach within a sector, such as integrated waste management, does not offer an integrated solution if not combined with efforts addressing the issues of deforestation, knowledge and practices on addressing different types of disasters with access to reliable information and forecasts. Due to the unique nature of the issues at hand, the solutions must be integrated, in that, the coverage of services pertaining to every sector are widespread. Integration needs to be ensured to the level that every sectoral need for Rohingyas in each camp is equally met.
Practical Action has been implementing a multitude of interventions with a multi-sectoral approach, where the overarching objectives are to protect environmental health and minimize the risk of damage due to different types of hazards such as landslides, floods, and fire. Currently, Practical Action is working in six camps in the Ukhiya (camps 7, 8E, 8W, 9, 13 and 15) and the Leda Makeshift Camp in Teknaf with being the WASH focal for camp 8W. Because of their unique integrated approach in faecal sludge management (FSM), organic and plastic waste, they have garnered a widely accepted presence within the WASH sector and are in regular coordination with ISCG, UN agencies, government and other NGOs.
The work Practical Action has been doing in the camps has been unique in that they all have a context-specific, integrated approach. To address the need for a proper solid waste management mechanism, they have devised context-specific FSM units, adopting "up-flow filtration technique” to ensure safe collection, containment and disposal of faecal waste, with added components such as co-composting for non-food agriculture at the camps. This removable, rainproof technology has proven to be a much-needed solution for safely managing faecal sludge in these densely populated camps. Through this technology, raw faecal sludge is converted into compost and the liquid portion of the sludge is discharged into soak pits having sand envelop after a certain level of treatment. Practical Action has also pioneered barrel composting where the compost is produced from organic solid waste and used for vertical agriculture in boxes next to the shelter houses.
As a part of Integrated Solid Waste Management, Practical Action has installed a plastic waste recycling plant in the Leda makeshift settlement to reuse plastic waste, focusing on the 3R (reduce-reuse-recycle) strategy, to combat the plastic pollution in the camps. The most important rationale for the plastic waste management site is to tackle the health crisis and nuisance created by plastic wastes and for the protection of the health and environment of the population of the Leda makeshift settlement. The plant turns plastic into alphabet blocks that serve as learning materials for children residing in the camps. This has just been one of Practical Action’s strides towards a plastic risk-free environment with a vision of a better future.
Due to the mass deforestation, the thousands of Rohingyas sheltered in these hilly areas of Cox’s Bazar are living in fear of mudslides during the monsoon season. The government, site managing NGOs, local administration and other agencies had been looking to protect the Rohingyas during the monsoon season, especially the ones living on the hill slopes in Ukhiya and Teknaf upazilas. As part of it, Practical Action has found an innovative way to prevent slope erosion by using vetiver grass, locally known as “Binna Grass” with added projection through layering the soil with geojute.
Based on the camp context and the underlying needs, Practical Action developed a model of youth volunteers from the communities to raise awareness on basic disaster knowledge and disaster drills during an emergency. The training was based on a comprehensive, context-specific module covering the potential hazards- landslides, fire hazard, cyclone and flood. They have installed Digital Information Board in the camps to disseminate critical information in times of emergency and other essential information during non-emergency times. They have been disseminating advisories such as disaster-related early warnings of all sorts, education, entertainment and awareness-raising contents for the camp dwellers as well as the weekly weather updates.
Practical Action’s work has focused on bringing a comprehensive solution tapping into the multidimensional problems of the camp dwellers. They have strived to broaden their horizon, avoiding tunnel vision, but rather innovating to carve their niche even in uncharted territories.
Farhana Shahnaz is an Assistant Officer, Fundraising at Practical Action Bangladesh.