A precarious environment for the Rohingya refugees

By United Nations Environment Programme
Andrea Dekrout is Senior Environmental Coordinator for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Based in Geneva, Dekrout is responsible for ensuring sustainable environmental management in UNHCR operations and refugee camps. In her work, she helps refugees and their host communities maintain a clean and healthy environment. We sat down with her to discuss the situation in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal city that has recently seen an enormous influx of refugees.

What is the history of Cox’s Bazar as a refugee settlement?
The refugee settlements on southern Bangladesh’s Teknaf Peninsula have existed for a number of years. Before August 2017 they hosted about 200,000 refugees, mainly Rohingyas from Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Since then almost 700,000 more have arrived, after making a perilous journey via land, river or sea.
What are the main environmental challenges?
The refugee influx into the Cox’s Bazar district has caused a significant impact on local forests and amplified human-wildlife conflict. It is estimated that the equivalent of 3-5 football fields of forest are felled every day in the area. Important national and community forestry areas, which were already under significant pressure before the influx, have been further degraded, limiting opportunities for local communities depending on forestry projects to supplement their livelihoods.
Which areas are most affected?
Critical biodiversity areas, like the Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary, Himchari National Park and the Inani Protected Area are likely to be degraded, and their timber and other forest products will likely be over exploited. Teknaf Sanctuary is home to a significant population of Bangladesh’s Asian elephants, as well as several other threatened species, which now regularly come into contact with refugee communities.
Firewood collection is the most immediate threat to the health of these areas, but other factors will reduce the quality of the forests over time.
For example, the extensive loss of groundcover vegetation in the camp has led to significant erosion, which will become especially evident in the rainy season, including the much-dreaded moonsoon that usually starts in late May or early June. This loss is due to site clearance and the use of low-growing plants as firewood. Low-growing shrubs and grasses – which previously served to protect waterways, reduce surface heat, slow the runoff of rainwater, and bind loose soils – are no longer present in many parts of the camps.
The erosion will contribute to landslides and higher temperatures within the camp. It will also have a major impact on downstream communities as waterways and agricultural fields become increasingly polluted by sediments carried by runoff from the camp.
Since the Rohingya refugee influx started, encounters with elephants have caused 11 deaths and numerous injuries among the refugees in the Kutapalong camp. The area designated for the camp is the habitat for the endangered Bangladesh Asian elephant and has historically been the site of a migration path for the elephants. Information on elephant movement is needed to safeguard humans and elephants in this area.
What is being done, or needs to be done, by the local authorities and the international community?
Currently, the main intervention aims to reduce the risk of landslides and minimize conflicts between elephants and humans.
To address the landslide hazards, UNHCR partnered with the Asian Disaster Prevention Center (ADPC) to produce rigorous and detailed maps of the landslide and flood hazards in the Kutapalong camp. These maps will now inform our work to reduce disaster risk and respond to landslides and other hazards.
In partnership with the UN Development Programme, this is now being adapted to a community awareness programme that will empower people to understand the hazards and take precautions.
The UN Refugee Agency has been working with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to address the issue. Fortunately, there have been no deaths since the joint project started in March 2018.
After the main rainy season, we will start working to restore the groundcover to prevent further erosion and runoff. Reforestation will begin after there is a comprehensive programme to address fuel supplies in the camp. There is currently a pilot trial on liquefied petroleum gas as an option for addressing refugee cooking fuel needs.
How can governments, civil society and the private sector minimize or prevent such environmental challenges?
We need to conserve vegetation since even the most unattractive little plant will provide soil stability. Partnerships have been key to some successes. Working with expert conservation agencies like IUCN is a very good example: IUCN have been an excellent partner by bringing the right skills, at the right time, to manage the elephant conflict.
In late 2017, UN Environment and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs deployed an environmental field adviser, through their Joint Environment Unit. The unit is an important source of expertise on humanitarian response in the wake of environmental emergencies. We encourage more partners to work through the Joint Environment Unit in Bangladesh to create a coherent approach to environmental programming.
UNDP has also been a key partner in reducing the risk of landslides and other disasters, and their long-term presence and history of work in Bangladesh meant that they could immediately bring their experience to bear.