Cox's Bazar, host to Rohingya refugee camp, to be hard hit by climate change

Cox's Bazar, host to Rohingya refugee camp, to be hard hit by climate change
Al Jazeera
Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh
Cox's Bazar, host to Rohingya refugee camp, to be hard hit by climate change

Deforestation and degradation will see the Bangladesh land that hosts refugees suffer further from temperature rise.

Dilfaraz Begum near her house at the edge of the Rohingya camps in Kutupalong village / Credit: Ayesha Akter

Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh - At first when they came, Dilfaraz Begum, a stout 41-year-old Bangladeshi woman, could not find it in her heart to turn them away. She gave the Rohingyas utensils, mattresses, water, whatever they needed to survive.

"We are not [Buddhists] and we are not Hindu, we are Muslim and as Muslims we should help other Muslims," said the mother of five, who has lived in Kutupalong village since 1999.

Along with neighbouring Balukhali in Cox's Bazar district, it now hosts the world’s largest refugee camp.

But the goodwill towards these refugees has soured over the last year.

Like Dilfaraz, Bangladesh is struggling to accommodate the Rohingya, whose numbers now amount to more than 1 million.

The exodus began in August 2017 as the predominantly-Muslim ethnic minority fled an army-backed massacre in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Most Rohingya are terrified of returning to the country, which has persecuted them for decades, so it remains unclear for how long Cox's Bazar will play host to their suffering.

And while the humanitarian crises at the camp have been documented, a different kind of disaster is brewing.

About one million Rohingya have sought refuge in Bangladesh after the army violently cracked down on them / Credit: Ayesha Akter

In the long run, researchers say, this would make the region more prone to the effects of climate change.The hilly tracts of Cox's Bazar could foster an environmental crisis brought on by indiscriminate deforestation and vanishing groundwater reservoirs. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, by 2050, Cox's Bazar will be the worst-hit district in South Asia as average temperatures rise and rainfall patterns become disruptive, a June 2018 World Bank report found.

Living standards, measured in household expenditure, could fall by 20 percent by mid-century. 

"Since Cox’s Bazar lags behind the national average in key development indicators such as education, access to electricity, water availability, market access and has a greater share of agricultural households, it may therefore become more vulnerable to the effects of temperature rise," said Muthukumara Mani, lead author of the World Bank report.

Cox's Bazar, a strip of land wedged between Myanmar to the east and the Bay of Bengal to the west, has sheltered Rohingya refugees over the decades during ethnic clashes in Myanmar. 

Some stayed while others returned as tensions subsided.

But this time it is different; entire villages have migrated en masse with little to return to.

Nur, left, and Dilfaraz share a moment in front of Dilfaraz's house in Kutupalong village / Credit: Malavika Vyawahare

Nur Begum, 25, works for Dilfaraz's brother (though she is of no relation). She says she is grateful to have support in the form of comfortable shelter. 

"I am not being paid, but they helped us out in our time of need," Nur said.

Her family of eight hails from Buthidaung in Myanmar's Rakhine state, home to many Rohingya. She arrived in Cox’s Bazar in August 2017, when the refugee influx first began.

"When we came, it looked like a jungle, people just choose their own place to build a shelter, and the whole jungle was destroyed," Nur recounted. 

The settlement is now spread across 5,800 acres, much of it cleared forest land.

Fuel and firewood requirements of the refugees has led to a dramatic rise in demand for wood [Malavika Vyawahare/Al Jazeera]

Over 95 percent of the refugees collect wood for fuel directly from the forests or buy it in the market. A tiny fraction use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders provided by non-governmental organizations. 

The loss of forests and land degradation is dangerous for the precariously placed camps.

"In Bangladesh these are not rocky hills, they are soft, soil hills. The stability comes from the roots of the trees,” said A. Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS). “If you cut the trees, you have destabilised the terrain, and there is a risk of hill collapse."

Vigorous monsoons make the area prone to landslides, and there is always the lurking threat of cyclones.

Overcrowding at the camp and poorly constructed infrastructure could add to the strain put on the environment.

In the initial months of the camp more than a year ago, shallow tube wells that pump water up from about 150 feet were dug quickly with little oversight. Many such tube wells have run dry as demand in the cramped camps peaked in summer months.

Toilets pits were also constructed close to water withdrawal points. Water samples from over 70 percent of the wells were contaminated by E. coli, according to the World Health Organization.

New tube wells are plumbing deeper into the poorly mapped aquifer.

A view of the Kutupalong Balukhali camp [Malavika Vyawahare/Al Jazeera]

And while a new 650-foot-deep hand pump has brought much-needed relief to the refugees, going deeper could cause salt water to contaminate freshwater resources, which could be disastrous for both refugees and local residents.  

The initial response to the refugee influx in the face of political uncertainty is not translating well into a long-term strategy. 

The Bangladeshi government and aid agencies "are still working in emergency mode," said Saleemul Huq, director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development, highlighting the need for environmental monitoring. "The long-term impacts are very uncertain."

The World Bank report does not take into account the impacts of the current refugee influx on the environment (it focuses on the impact of average temperature changes and rainfall on living standards). But it notes that deforestation has led to major landslides and harmed property and water resources in the area.

It recommends investment in socio-economic development to overcome climate change impacts. 

The state and local government will struggle to make those investments, however, if the refugee situation remains unresolved.

A boy carrying firewood inside the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp / Credit: Malavika Vyawahare

"Poverty may increase due to depletion of assets, labour competition, and the impact of the cyclone and monsoon seasons," a Joint Response Plan 2018 prepared by United Nations agencies in conjunction with the Bangladeshi government, said, warning that "the current situation risks slowing — and even reversing — efforts towards socio-economic development of the district." 

Resentment is brewing among locals as the camps become a fixture of the landscape. Disappearing forests are also a sore spot for locals who have watched a vital resource become scarce.

Dilfaraz believes that people living next to the camp have paid the heaviest price, while businesses that support the vast machinery of aid have prospered.

"The Bangladeshi government has to find a solution," she said.

Mamtaj shows injuries sustained by her daughter, Rajia, during the crackdown. At the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp / Credit: Ayesha Akter

A joint plan to repatriate the refugees formulated by the Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments, has failed to take off. International agencies have criticised the two governments for ignoring the Rohingya’s wishes not to return to Myanmar without assurances of their full rights and without fear of persecution. 

Terrors of their homeland continue to haunt refugees. Mamtaj, 30, is the mother of two boys and one girl, but only her seven-year-old daughter remains living. 

Soldiers shot her husband, she said. Her five-year-old son was snatched from her arms and thrown into a fire. The 11-year old was shot dead.

"There were two men, one held me down by my head and arms and the other raped me," Mamtaj recounted.  "I will never go back to Burma."

A version of this story was originally published on Al Jazeera on Dec. 19, 2018.

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