From frying pan into fire

The Rohingya families camped up in the hills of the tourist town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh south-east, who fled their homes to escape one the worst state-backed ethnic cleansings in history, are now facing a new threat – monsoon landslide triggered by increased rainfall.

Official counts put the number of Rohingya refugees at around .7 million while unofficial estimates say this could be as many as five hundred thousand more.

Not surprisingly, the Bangladesh government was not at all prepared for a sudden rush of hundreds of thousands of people scared to death by the persecution carried out by the Myanmar government. So, initially, they settled for makeshift camps, roadsides and virtually any empty space that they could find after crossing over the border on boats, on foot and what not.

Initially, there was nothing – no food, shelter, medical facilities – that could be called very basic for a human being to merely survive. Gradually, the government recuperated and began shifting the refugees from the bordering areas to places a bit more inland – such as the hills of Cox’s Bazar.

However, because the hills were covered in rich vegetation, the authorities had to cut down thousands of trees to make space for the refugee camps, which themselves are a collection of nothing more than makeshift shanties – bamboo structure covered by straw and polythene sheets.

They settled for makeshift camps, after crossing over the border on boats, on foot and what not [image by: Abu Siddique]

A significant amount of trees are also being taken down to serve as cooking fuel for thousands of refugee families [image by: Abu Siddique]

According to the local forest office, a staggering 5,800 acres of hillside land have already been cleared to make room for the refugee camps.

Moreover, a significant amount of trees are also being taken down to serve as cooking fuel for thousands of refugee families. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation, the daily demand for firewood of these Rohingya families is no less than 2,250 tonnes.

The humanitarian groups are now warning that such indiscriminate clearing of trees from the hillsides, coupled with increased rainfall, could lead to deadly landslides, and if that happens, hundreds of thousands of unprepared and hapless Rohingya people camped up on the hillsides will be buried alive in a matter of minutes.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency estimate says that 23,934 number of families which comprised of 102,036 numbers of people are at great risk of being affected by landslide and floods.

In recent years, the southeastern regions of Bangladesh have experienced a significant hike in rainfall patterns. A study carried out by Bangladesh Meteorological Department said, in Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar the monsoon rainfall has increased by 7% each. Both the areas also comprise the biggest destination of the recent Rohingya influx.

“We must learn from our mistakes. We have seen in recent years how people were killed by landslides when there was more rain than usual in the deforested hills of Bandarban and Rangamati in last three years,” said Dr Saleemul Huq, director of International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

Climate change experts such as Huq have always said that the change in rainfall patterns in Bangladesh was a direct consequence of the global warming and the corresponding erratic behavior of weather.

Environmentalists say the recent landslides in Bandarban and Rangamati occurred because trees were brutally cut down by racketeers; there was no case of landslides in these two hilly districts when there were enough trees.

A few of the Rohingya people, who are still to recover from the horror and trauma that they have fled from, are somewhat aware of the dangers of landslide.

“We have nothing else but our fate to blame. We survived the atrocities in Rakhaine. We will accept it as our destiny if we are killed by the landslides,” said Mohammad Farid, who came to Bangladesh from Myanmar several months ago.

More alarmingly, the hills of Cox’s Bazar are also among the worst hit areas whenever a big cyclone and storm surges brew in the Bay of Bengal. The Bangladesh government has achieved some degree of success in reducing fatalities from such natural disasters through training and capacity building.

However, Shamim Iftekhar, a project lead of humanitarian group- BRAC said when the cyclones hit, it would be a David versus Goliath fight because these Rohingyas haven’t got any training, neither do they understand the local vernacular in order for them to respond to warning messages.