Disaster relief

Rotarians and ShelterBox on the ground following Rohingya crisis

Rotarians and ShelterBox on the ground following Rohingya crisis

More than half a million Rohingya people are facing fresh perils living in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh where the coming cyclone season threatens to wash away their flimsy plastic shelters.

Rotarian Liz Odell is currently working in Bangladesh as a response volunteer with the charity ShelterBox.

“Conditions are dire, with most people living in small shelters made of flimsy black plastic sheeting and bamboo poles,” reports Liz, a past president of the Rotary Club of Nailsworth in Gloucestershire.

“There is little space between the shelters, and the paths between them are a congealing soup of oozing mud.

“Most of the inhabitants have no possessions and only the clothes that they were wearing when they fled from their villages in Rakhine state. Many are traumatised by their experiences and the loss of loved ones.”

To put the disaster into perspective, imagine the entire population of Bristol crammed into a little over three square miles.

This is the result of over half a million Rohingya people – more than half of them children, thousands separated from their parents – arriving in Bangladesh by foot or by river crossing from Myanmar.

More than 500,000 Rohingyas are now settling in makeshift and spontaneous camps in the Cox’s Bazar area.

Poignantly, from these vantage points many of them are now able to see their former home villages burning in the distance across the border.

With the cyclone season fast approaching, there is concern that the camps which have been set up on terraces high above rice paddy fields, are prone to collapse.

Liz explained: “Much of the area around the camps is rice paddies – they are under water so the Rohingyas are forced to build their shelters on the precipitous slopes of the surrounding hills. Once the cyclone season arrives, these terraces are likely to collapse.”

ShelterBox, a UK based international disaster relief agency specialising in emergency shelter for families displaced by conflict and natural disasters, is making arrangements to bring in aid. This includes portable solar lighting, which has helped reduce gender-based violence in refugee camps worldwide.

Tools and tarpaulin will help with waterproof shelter construction, and to bring basic comfort to families without any possessions ShelterBox is also aiming to fly in blankets.

ShelterBox teams had arrived in Bangladesh in response to the worst flooding for decades, but now find themselves responding to a human flood as well.

Liz and her colleague Jimmy Griffith from New Zealand have visited the two largest camps, Kutupalong and Balukhali.

Liz Odell - ShelterBox Response Volunteer

Liz Odell has been a ShelterBox response volunteer since 2010 and has been involved in over 16 deployments across the world including Haiti in 2015 (above)

Here teams of aid workers are working round the clock to install water tanks, wells, latrines, medical facilities (including a 95 bed field hospital) and child-friendly spaces.

But Liz says it is a race against time. She added: “The influx has been so monumental and so fast that the facilities become overwhelmed as fast as they are built.

“One water and sanitation health worker told us that as fast as they dig latrines, they are overflowing and they don’t yet have a system for disposing of the faecal sludge. Imagine the smell.

“On a positive note, the weather has been dry the last few days and the knee-deep mud is beginning to dry up.

“The World Health Organization is in a race against time to administer 300,000 cholera vaccinations before the inevitable outbreak of the disease.”

ShelterBox is working with a cluster of other non-governmental organisations on a co-ordinated aid programme, but the numbers needing help are challenging, and at times overwhelming.

They have an experienced team in Cox’s Bazar working hard with local Rotary contacts and partners to help as many vulnerable families as possible.