Rohingya refugees reflected in rain water along an embankment next to paddy fields after fleeing from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh November 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Hannah McKay
Rohingya refugees reflected in rain water along an embankment next to paddy fields after fleeing from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh November 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Hannah McKay

The first rains of the year fell in the refugee camps south of Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh in mid-April, highlighting fears about the impact this year’s monsoon will have on already abysmal conditions as storms mount in the weeks ahead.

The slither of land that stretches south from Cox’s Bazar to Bangladesh’s southern tip near Teknaf was at this time last year home to an estimated 200,000 refugees, mostly Rohingya, fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar.

That figure has since spiked as an estimated 670,000 more refugees have fled the Myanmar military’s brutal “clearance” operations launched last August in the northern region of western Rakhine state.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are now housed in makeshift camps around Cox’s Bazar, with many shelters nothing more than a piece of tarpaulin held up by bamboo. Such structures are now crammed into almost every available inch of space in the area.

Those arriving did so with harrowing stories of abuse, including reports of extrajudicial killing, torture, arson and mass rape, allegedly at the hands of the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, sometimes working alongside local residents.

Myanmar military troops take part in an exercise at the Ayeyarwaddy delta region in Myanmar, February 3, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lynn Bo Bo/Pool

The Tatmadaw has largely denied the accusations, saying troops were conducting legitimate “anti-terrorism” operations against Rohingya militants. Many of the refugees now in Bangladesh say they feel much safer there, where they do not face the risk of potential attacks.

But the oncoming monsoon has raised fears that hundreds of thousands could be at risk from flooding, landslides and waterborne diseases spread by poor sanitation conditions.

“While the first rains have been at nothing like the intensity we will see when monsoon proper strikes, they give an early and worrying indication of the very serious challenges,” Fiona MacGregor, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration in Cox’s Bazar told Asia Times.

“Even with light showers and limited heavier rains, we could see areas of flooding, roads being churned up and people having to wade through water, which as well as creating access and movement difficulties, also poses a risk of waterborne disease,” she said.

Rainfall typically peaks in southern Bangladesh in June, July and August. In a statement issued by the South Asian Climate Outlook Forum, a weather forecaster, it said that “normal rainfall” is expected during this year’s monsoon in the region.

But that will likely be enough to make an already abysmal situation untenable in the already severely overcrowded camps, aid workers say.

“When the first rains hit, some houses were destroyed and people had to tie them down,” said a Rohingya man living in Kutupalong camp in southern Bangladesh. “People are worried about what’s to come,” said the man, who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity due to fears for his safety.

Aid and humanitarian workers on the ground are rushing to prepare for the monsoon by building roads, bridges and drains, and supporting the relocation of those families deemed most at risk because they are in low-lying, flood-prone areas.

Groups are also upgrading shelters and providing emergency supplies in case areas are cut off by unpassable muddy roads.

Caroline Gluck, spokesperson for UNHCR Bangladesh, calls the issue “an emergency within an emergency. She said that about 1,000 families had already been relocated to safer grounds.

“But the main problem is the lack of alternative land,” Gluck told Asia Times. “The biggest problem has been identifying suitable flat land that can be developed as alternative shelter spaces during the most difficult time of year.”

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang, March 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/Fred Dufour

Another issue when the rains hit will be accessibility, said Hillol Sobhan, communications and public relations director at CARE Bangladesh, a nongovernmental organization providing aid to the refugees.

“Since the camps are in highly prone landslide zones, any heavy downpour can lead to landslides, obstructing regular communication,” warned Sobhan.

One aid worker working in the camps predicts that the monsoon rains will bring a “new humanitarian crisis” on top of a situation viewed by many as the worst human catastrophe in decades in the region.

“Monsoon rains will destroy or damage nearly all refugee shelters, and lots of new infrastructure. Many lives will be lost, and disease will spread,” the worker, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said. “It could be thousands, or even tens of thousands dead, and widespread disruption.”

“I wish that was an exaggeration, but look at Bangladesh’s cyclone history, and even Cyclone Nargis [which hit Myanmar in 2008, killing 140,000 people],” he said. “Then imagine nearly one million people crammed into one place with basically no protection from the elements.”