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A man in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, draws water from a communal tap (Sahat Zia Hero)

How the Climate Crisis Deepens Hardships for Rohingya Refugees

… why displaced Rohingya in Cox's Bazar are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Words: Ahtaram Shine
Pictures: Sahat Zia Hero

For Rohingya displaced from their homeland, life in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, is already difficult. Originally designed to shelter 50,000 people, the area is now home to more than 960,000 and often described as the “largest refugee camp in the world.” 

Many live in shelters scrapped together with bamboo and tarps, hardly enough to fend off strong rains and winds. To make the circumstances even more trying, the climate crisis is wreaking havoc on the camp and the surrounding area: rising sea levels, extreme weather, and worrying health issues. During monsoon season, the low-lying area that houses the camp endures cyclones and severe flooding

To Salim Ullah, who lives in the camp, the weather has only “added [to the] suffering” of refugees marooned in Cox’s Bazar. The local leader said these problems have already compounded health risks for people in the crowded camp. Ullah isn’t alone in his concern — many camp residents have begun sounding the alarm on climate change’s consequences for the vulnerable and displaced people residing here. 

A man looks out over the flood-devastated refugee camp that houses Rohingya refugees (Sahat Zia Hero)
A Rohingya child looks from a hilltop down to a flooded section of the camp after heavy rainfall during the July 2021 monsoon (Sahat Zia Hero)

Since 2015, targeted violence in Myanmar has displaced almost a million Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, to Bangladesh, according to Oxfam International. The organization says more than half of that total are children, while almost 50% do not have access to “safe drinking water” and seven-in-10 live “without adequate shelter.” 

Especially Vulnerable 

In January, fires raged through Camp 5, a section of the broader refugee encampment in Cox’s Bazar, and left some 7,000 people without homes, the United Nations refugee agency said at the time. The fires destroyed 800 residences, but they also burned down a large number of trees and bushes, further compounding the challenges that severe temperatures bring. 

Such hardships have hit especially hard the elderly, women, and children. While women and older people tend to stay inside their shelters more often, children have taken to playing in drains and rubbish-strewn areas. 

As climate change worsens, floods have become more severe in low-lying Rohingya camps (Sahat Zia Hero)
Rohingya refugees cross a damaged bambo bridge over a river in Cox's Bazar (Sahat Zia Hero)

For the older residents, the scarcity of necessities can prove exceptionally difficult. Amid a lack of access to clean food and sanitary living conditions, ailments such as hepatitis, malaria, dengue, severe skin diseases, and chikungunya have become common. Others in the camp complained of seasonal flu, sinus issues, respiratory problems, and ulcers, among other medical complications. 

Some in the camp said they had never required the level of medical treatment they now need in living in the cramped corridors. “Our health system is changing in the camp,” explained Noor Alom, adding: “I had never taken paracetamol in my 45 years of life in Myanmar.” 

More Frequent Floods

Changing climate has also taken a harsh toll on rainwater harvesting — collecting, storing, and recycling rainwater that runs off rooftops, streets, and parks, for instance —  in Bangladesh, including in the refugee camps where Rohingya live. 

The floods, already growing more frequent and unpredictable, often destroy irrigation and drinking water systems. Last August, monsoon floods impacted some 300,000 people in the area surrounding the camp and 15,000 camp residents, killing at least five, Oxfam said at the time. 

Climate-induced damage to waste manage systems has put children at risk of serious illness (Sahat Zia Hero)
A Rohingya girl collects garbage from a dump site filled with plastic bottles and disposed waster to sell to local vendors (Sahat Zia Hero)

But when floods destroy irrigation and drinking water systems, it can also cause contamination and waterborne diseases. Residents say effective rainwater systems are urgently needed in the refugee camps to provide clean, safe water for drinking and sanitation purposes, as well as to reduce the potential overuses of existing water sources in the area. Rainwater can also go toward agricultural and sanitation uses, and such systems would go a long way in mitigating the harmful impacts of climate change. 

The lack of proper waste management has made things worse, and it leaves unpleasant smells around us.

– Tosmin

An older man named Abu Fayas explained that he has witnessed the consequences of worsening climate change. “The cyclones and landslides are making our lives more challenging,” he said. “Every time it rains, we worry about landslides, and the cyclones are becoming stronger and more frequent. We are not equipped to deal with such natural disasters.” 

Due to the close quarters and increasingly severe weather, Rohingya refugees say they need better infrastructure in the camps (Sahat Zia Hero)
A Rohingya woman stands near a water tap stand covered with buckets and pots to collect daily water in the afternoon (Sahat Zia Hero)

Adding to the misery is the lack of trees. In the refugee camps, the absence of enough trees means more soil erosion, more dust pollution, and the further degradation of land. The tree shortage multiplies the harms of extreme weather conditions, leaving camp residents even more exposed to the elements. “There should be more trees to reduce the temperature [and] make our environment stronger against the weather,” said Asiya Begun, an older Rohingya woman. 

“Living in a Polluted Environment” 

More challenging still, the Rohingya camps lack an effective and comprehensive strategy for waste management. Floods often send sewage water into the streets and other public areas. These problems have caused diarrhea, scabies, and other serious health problems — sometimes life-threatening — among camp residents. 

Tosmin, another Rohingya woman who lives in the camp, lamented that she and other displaced people are now “living in a polluted environment,” explaining that such complications have caused “unbearable illnesses, including for our children.” She added, “The lack of proper waste management has made things worse, and it leaves unpleasant smells around us.” 

More than half of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are children (Sahat Zia Hero)
A Rohingya woman named Laila, who with her family fled Myanmar in 2017, and are now entirely dependent on humanitarian aid in the Cox's Bazar camp (Sahat Zia Hero)

Because of Bangladesh’s terrain, much of which is low-lying and flat, the country is on the frontlines of the ever-worsening climate crisis. UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency, says some 20 million children in Bangladesh are already enduring the fallout of climate change. “The dangers are magnified further for Rohingya refugees living in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar,” the agency said in a statement published in January. 

Experts say camps in places like Cox’s Bazar need necessary precautions as climate change continues to become more severe: waste management and improved infrastructure, water canals and garbage disposal, solar panels and generators. 

As the situation grows more difficult by the day, Sha Alom, another camp resident, said he hopes for more efforts to “raise awareness and educate the younger generations about the importance of the environment.” He added that he hopes they will learn about their “responsibilities to protect and address these challenges.”

To see more of Rohingyatographer’s work, visit the magazine’s website here.

Ahtaram Shine

Ahtaram Shine is a multifaceted professional with roles spanning research, journalism, education, social work, and project management, primarily aimed at advocacy and capacity building. His advocacy efforts center around the Rohingya community, with a deep focus on human rights and combatting human trafficking. Sahat Zia Hero is a multifaceted media professional—a photographer, writer, human rights activist, and the founder of Rohingyatographer Magazine. In 2023, he received two significant recognitions for his work from the Prince Claus Seeds Award and Nansen Refugee Regional Award.

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