Rohingya exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh sparks ecological crisis
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh as the Tatmadaw, Myanmar's military, has torched their homes and tortured their families. However the ecological crisis resulting from this mass migration has received far less attention.
Even so, the consequences matter to Rohingya refugees stuck in Bangladesh just as much as the foreign humanitarian aid on which they have come to depend.
Using whatever materials they can find to rebuild a semblance of their past lives and survive in Bangladesh, the Rohingya refugees have put a tremendous strain on the natural environment. They gather wood from forests surrounding the refugee camps, exacerbating the depletion of already-scarce natural resources. By October 2018, the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh had reached well over 900,000, speaking to the growing potential for an environmental disaster.
"Refugees often compete with locals for access to freshwater and firewood, among other resources," said Dr Idean Salehyan, an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas.
"We have seen this quite dramatically with the Rohingya population in Bangladesh, but other refugee crises have created similar concerns. Obviously, an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and the construction of new, large-scale camps will have an impact on the environment."
Read also: Eight times Myanmar took a leaf out of Israel's repression handbook
Earlier this year, the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP, published what it dubbed a "rapid environmental assessment study" of Bangladesh's concurrent ecological and humanitarian crises in coordination with the country's environmental ministry. The report concluded that the Rohingya influx had contributed to air pollution, deforestation, groundwater pollution, and soil erosion in a country that has already struggled to respond to climate change.
The UNDP suggested proactive measures that Bangladesh could take but admitted that the South Asian country likely lacked the required funds.
A Bangladeshi official referred to the expansion of Rohingya refugee camps as nothing less than "an environmental catastrophe" in an interview with Radio Free Asia, which reported that Bangladesh had cleared $18 million worth of forests to make way for the refugee's arrival.
|Bangladesh had cleared $18 million worth of forests to make way for the refugee's arrival|
The makeshift nature of the refugee camps puts the Rohingya at particular risk during monsoon season. Up to 150,000 Rohingya refugees might lose their homes because of storms, which could also destroy a third of the clinics on which Rohingya have come to rely for healthcare.
"Predictable rains and typhoons complicate an already-complex response scenario," said Erol Yayboke, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing the example of Kutupalong refugee camp.
"Kutupalong is situated in a hilly part of the country which poses a conundrum for temporary shelter placement: too high on the hill and the typhoon winds might cause roofs to fly; too low and floods - and the communicable diseases that often come with them - become a big problem."
The most obvious solution to these problems appears the least likely: the return of the Rohingya refugees to their homes in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw's campaign against the Muslim minority shows no signs of abating, so the international community and aid agencies must consider humanitarian alternatives that will account for the relative permanence of the refugees' presence in Bangladesh.
"Refugee camps need to be properly planned and equipped, so as to minimise pressure on the local community and environment," Salehyan told The New Arab.
"Water storage facilities, cooking fuel, proper sanitation facilities, and so on are important for minimising the environmental impact. Even better - if refugees are not forced to live in camps, but allowed to self-settle and find local employment, we do not see large, permanent camps that are dependent on outside resources."
Read also: Systematically terrorised: Rohingyas face severe health restrictions in Myanmar
The UNDP and other UN agencies, such as the UN Environmental Programme and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, seem best positioned to confront the simultaneous ecological and humanitarian crises caused by the Rohingya's exodus from Bangladesh.
"The UNHCR has in many contexts worked very hard to minimise the environmental effects of refugees in host countries," said Dr Nina Hall, an assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University.
"Since the 1990s, the UNHCR has included environmental impact assessments within many of its humanitarian operations. These efforts were part of a growing acknowledgement that refugees had an impact on their host environment, which had often been overlooked previously."
The World Health Organization, or WHO, another UN agency, has launched a campaign to promote sanitation in the Rohingya refugee camps surrounding the Bangladeshi city of Cox's Bazar. UN affiliates from the UNDP to the UNHCR could follow in WHO's footsteps in Bangladesh.
"Host countries and the international community need to think of forced displacement increasingly through an urban - and an urban environmental stewardship - lens: better waste management, more and cleaner transportation options, better infrastructure, adequate and affordable housing, pollution control, and informal settlement creation," said Yayboke.
While Bangladesh has done its best to accommodate almost one million Rohingya refugees, it would benefit from further support from the international community and wealthy countries in particular. Saudi Arabia and the United States, both of which have championed the Rohingya's cause in the past, could fund humanitarian aid that mitigates the cost of the Rohingya exodus to the natural environment.
|Saudi Arabia and the United States, both of which have championed the Rohingya's cause in the past, could fund humanitarian aid that mitigates the cost of the Rohingya exodus to the natural environment|
The ecological and humanitarian crises that have resulted from Myanmar's persecution of the Rohingya present a critical test of the international community's ability to deal with climate change and ethnic cleansing, two issues on which countries have rarely reached a consensus. Now, though, Rohingya refugees' futures depend on the international community overcoming that impasse.
"Host countries and the international community need to come up with better solutions for deforestation and better land management," Yayboke told The New Arab.
"As challenging as it is to do so politically, we need to start thinking about refugee camps as communities that may be there for a while and would thus benefit from better land and environmental stewardship."
Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution.