Rohingya Crisis Response Update

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Cox’s Bazar, a district on the southeast coast of Bangladesh, is home to over 836,000 refugees – many of whom have fled violence in neighbouring Myanmar.

Since the initial establishment of refugee camps in August 2017, the influx of new arrivals and monsoon rains have added major challenges for the humanitarian response. Following on from our previous article on the Rohingya response, we return to the region six months later for an update on the situation.

RedR UK Member Burton Twisa is a Water and Sanitation for Health engineer with over 20 years’ experience working in complex emergencies across Africa and Asia. Burton began working as part of the emergency response to the Rohingya crisis in December 2017 with Plan International and has just finished working in the same area with UNICEF as a Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) expert. He explains some of the challenges currently faced by the response teams:

“The current humanitarian situation in Cox’s Bazar is challenging to the refugees, humanitarian organisations, and UN agencies. The congestion and swampy terrain of the camps limits access, constrains provision of basic services, and risks lives of the refugees – especially children. The large number of different actors, both national and international can make it difficult to coordinate, which in turn impacts on the humanitarian response and the ability to respond adequately and to meet the right standards.”

Burton Twisa

WASH Engineer, Plan International

Material shortages make effective response difficult

Cheryl McDonald is an international development professional and public health engineer. A RedR UK Member for nine years, Cheryl is skilled in managing multi-disciplinary projects in recovery and development contexts following natural and man-made disasters. She is on call with the British Red Cross as part of their emergency response unit and was in Bangladesh as part of their specialist mass sanitation team. Aside from coordination issues, Cheryl highlights the challenges faced by the weather and terrain in the area:

“Risk of flooding and landslides due to the deforestation in the camp areas poses a major difficulty to adequate response. People need wood to cook with and most vegetation has been removed right down to root level. There is currently access to food supplies, non-food items (NFI’s), and health clinics although access within the camps I worked in is all by foot. When the rains come the roads will become muddy and dangerous.

Unfortunately, there are limited options to address this issue, and only a limited amount of additional forest reserve land has been granted. However, there is a Preparedness Plan in place for the displaced populations which focuses on strengthening shelters, improving drainage around public buildings, slope stabilization, and road/path stabilisation. For the environmental work there are assessments being carried out. Also, agencies are providing alternative cooking materials such as compressed rice husks and cooking gas so that people don't have to rely on the scarce wood supplies. Another disaster is fairly likely due to the rains, flooding, or landslides for example, and I think this is what most agencies are gearing up for.”

"Shelters are made from quite flimsy materials and access to stronger building materials is challenging due to certain restrictions though Shelter / Non Food Items (NFI) cluster are influencing change. People are doing what they can by digging up mud to use to reinforce their bamboo and tarpaulin-built shelters, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) shelter cluster have been handing out more bamboo, ropes, and pegs to strengthen shelters against the rain and winds."

Cheryl McDonald

Emergency Response Member, British Red Cross

Cheryl McDonald

Rainy Season

Approximately 80% of Bangladesh’s yearly rainfall occurs from June to October, and by the end of monsoon season each year almost one third of the country is underwater.

Preparations for Monsoon Season

Burton explains how humanitarian workers are preparing for the arrival of the monsoon season:

Each sector had its action plan to improve the situation before rains and cyclones. [For example], the Shelter Sector was planning to strengthen refugees’ shelters to resist cyclones; Health and WASH Sectors were jointly working to ensure front-line staff are trained on Acute Watery Diarrhea (AWD) response, increase the number of trained front-line staff, and continuously conduct community awareness campaigns on AWD. In addition, preparations were made for WASH contingency stocks, training was provided to the refugee community on water treatment using aqua tabs, work started on decommissioning all shallow wells located in areas to be flooded, and WASH experts were continuously water testing at the sources and households.

The camp management partners were also working on decongestion and relocation of refugees residing in flood and landslide prone areas and increasing access by opening roads in the camps to reach health facilities and distribution points. These were among a few actions from different sectors but each sector through Inter Sector Coordination Groups (ISCG) provided a detailed action plan.

Cheryl describes the hard work of the responders to address the incoming rains.


“Efforts are being made to reinforce community latrines with stronger roofing, cross bracing and sandbag protection as well as decommissioning latrines in the flood prone areas. This entails emptying them, treating with lime and taking out of service. That means also providing new latrines in less flood prone areas. Engineers are also working on improving the design of existing latrines and increasing their capacity by retro-fitting with an additional soakaway pit which has a biofilter. Additional efforts include adding flood protection to our treatment site, stabilising the river bank, and improving the drainage on site with brick paths and keeping rain away from the treatment beds.”

Cheryl McDonald

Emergency Response Member, British Red Cross

Cheryl McDonald


A particularly challenging aspect of this response has been the management of faecal sludge. With the heavy rains, overcrowding, and the temporary nature of the camps, ensuring the adequate number and condition of latrines has proved difficult.

Cheryl points out how important it has been to collaborate with partners on this issue.

"Emergency response doesn’t normally include the treatment of fecal sludge, but given the speed at which latrines are filling and the risk of flooding to latrines, this has been a key component. It has meant I had the opportunity to work alongside some of the experts in the field of Faecal Sludge Management (FSM). The team included staff from Mott MacDonald and Eawag - Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology.”

Burton also faced difficulties when it came to managing the fecal sludge situation and describes the challenges he faced in addressing the issue and how his team worked to overcome them: 

“The fecal sludge management was the most challenging. The camps are congested and there is limited space for installation of adequate pit latrines. As a result, the few existing latrines were quickly filled. Decommissioning or demolishing filled latrines was easily done but space for replacement of new latrines was unavailable. Construction of permanent pit latrines with good design and big capacity was strictly not allowed by the government because its preference was repatriation of refugees, so only temporary facilities were allowed to be constructed. Increasing the depth of latrines was inevitable but constrained by the high water-table. Instead of decommissioning latrines, it was decided and agreed to desludge and establish treatment plants in identified points though access was another obstacle.”

Continued Response

While humanitarian workers are diligently working to address the needs of those in the camps, there is still much to be done to ensure that a safe environment is in place. Continued attention on Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) issues and awareness of how the monsoon rains will affect the operation of the camps is crucial.