Aid Workers Race to Prepare Bangladesh’s Rohingya Refugee Camps for Monsoon Wind and Rain

Cox’s Bazar, 10 May 2019 – When Cyclone Fani – one of the most powerful Indian Ocean storms of the past decade – barrelled up the Bay of Bengal a week ago making landfall in northern India and western Bangladesh, it left 24 people dead, a trail of destruction and thousands displaced. Some 2.6 million people – a million in India and 1.6 million in Bangladesh – were evacuated from its path, potentially saving thousands of lives.

Aid workers in Cox’s Bazar, the southern district of Bangladesh where nearly a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar live in crowded makeshift camps constructed from bamboo and plastic sheet, breathed a sigh of relief. Fani passed north of the camps, dumping heavy rain and causing minor damage, but leaving the vulnerable refugees and local communities largely unscathed.

But with further cyclones possible and the monsoon expected to bring the first heavy rains in June, IOM camp managers recognize the risks and the need to prepare for the worst. Preparations for Fani – which included the deployment of 200 IOM staff and 250 trained volunteers to help the refugees prepare for the storm, together with the distribution of over 90,000 “Tie Down Kits” consisting of ropes, wire and sandbags – were something of a “dress rehearsal” for future bad weather, according to IOM Bangladesh Deputy Chief of Mission Manuel Pereira.

“Last year – 2018 – was the first full monsoon season following the influx of refugees in August 2017. We learned from that experience and refined our response plan accordingly. Since then we have tried to prepare the refugees by providing them with the essential information they need to survive.  Without (concrete) cyclone shelters, we can’t fully prepare people for a major cyclone, but we can prepare them for the monsoon,” he said.

“Our plan includes emergency response teams on standby at key locations in the camp to respond to flooding, assess damage and distribute aid from emergency distribution points. But we all know this could only be the start of what could turn out to be a very difficult cyclone and monsoon season,” he added.

Bangladesh lies in one of the world’s most cyclone-prone regions. Extreme weather systems often form in the Bay of Bengal and head north, making landfall in northern India or coastal Bangladesh. Past cyclones have been some of the strongest in history, notably the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which hit neighbouring Myanmar and killed an estimated 100,000 people. Even in the absence of cyclones, monsoons in Cox’s Bazar bring some of the world’s heaviest rain and powerful, gusting winds.

IOM and partner aid agencies in the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) met on Wednesday (8/5) to review overall disaster preparedness plans in the Cox’s Bazar camps.