In early May, Cyclone Fani was projected to hit Bangladesh with 175 kilometers per hour (108 miles per hour) winds and heavy rains. Humanitarian groups sprung into action, dispatching disaster response teams and distributing supplies to the highly vulnerable Rohingya camps, which host over 910,000 refugees along the nation’s southern coastal area.
Built on hills made of a fine, silt-like soil, the camps near the Cox’s Bazar district are particularly prone to landslides and flash floods, meaning downpours can wreak havoc on the successive waves of Rohingya refugees who have taken shelter there. As Cyclone Fani approached, both refugees and the many agencies that manage the camps watched nervously as the storm veered west, largely missing Cox’s Bazar, but causing extensive damage in India and western Bangladesh.
The episode would serve as a precursor to the potentially catastrophic events that lie ahead. Now, as monsoon season begins in Bangladesh, massive earth-moving projects that have been undertaken over the last year to reinforce camp settlements against the worst weather conditions will be put to the test.
Working side by side with local residents and NGOs, Rohingya refugees have been taking part in a program as paid laborers to build roads, bridges, drainage systems and reinforcement walls. Known as the Site Maintenance Engineering Project (SMEP), the program seeks to address critical infrastructure issues in the camps, most of which were hastily built in 2017 as over 700,000 refugees fled ethnic violence in Myanmar.
“These slopes are not stable, at any moment you could have a landslide,” said Mosa Alshalabi, an engineer with the World Food Programme (WFP), which is coordinating the program with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
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