The impact of the monsoon season on the refugee camps in Bangladesh: an interview with Dan Graham

MOAS: Welcome to our MOAS podcast! Today we are speaking with Dan Graham about the impact of the monsoon season on refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Dan is MOAS’ programme coordinator and technical advisor in Bangladesh, and he is in charge of the implementation of water and flood safety training in the district of Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee settlement that is hosting more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees.
This area of Bangladesh is particularly affected by flash flooding and after the devastation we have seen in the last few weeks due to monsoon rains, floods and landslides, we are reminded of the importance of Flood and Water Safety Training.
MOAS is present in Cox’s Bazar district since 2019, providing life-saving training and equipment to Rohingya refugees and the host community so that they can act as first responders in the event of natural disasters.
First of all, thank you Dan for speaking with us today. Firstly, I’d like to speak to you about the effects of the monsoon season in the refugee camps: what is the impact of the monsoon and what are the critical proponents which make the situation an emergency?

Dan Graham: The monsoon season in Bangladesh runs from around June to October. The average rainfall in Bangladesh is around two meters a year. Even in the driest areas, they still see around 1.6 meters a year. And about 80% of that falls in the monsoon period. So, you can imagine as a country that is essentially a Delta River of the Himalayas that is made of silt and mud and clay that’s come down from the mountains, there’s essentially no rock anywhere in this country, that monsoon season does bring some hardships for everybody in Bangladesh, not just the refugees. Life gets very muddy, life gets quite polluted. I spend a lot of my time in Wellington boots as I’m moving around, not just at work, but going out in the evenings. So, in the refugee camps, you take all of that weather and you put that into an environment that was, four years ago, essentially unmanaged jungle and rice paddies and you put 800,000 people into that environment, a new shelter them in plastic tarpaulin and bamboo. The weather impact that our monsoon has on that population is quite drastic. It’s a period of the year where essentially nothing dries, the air is very, very humid, it can get up to kind of 85%-90% humidity, and then pretty constant rainfall, not always heavy, but it’s unusual for a day to go by without some rain falling. And so in the camps where there are very few bricked roads, most things are just worn modern mud footpaths, life gets very, very muddy and very, very wet. Some of the camps are quite steep in their landscape, you know, steep hills and so forth and so the people at the bottom of those hills are at risk of flooding, and impact from landslide, the people at the top are certainly at risk of a landslide and unfortunately this year, we’ve seen an awful lot of both. So, the 27th-28th of July we had a period of particularly intense rain, which led to quite wide scale flooding, impacting on a lot of access to the camps, access roads, and a lot of Camp infrastructure including sanitation blocks, water treatment centers, food outlets, LPG distribution, and most infrastructure was impacted to a greater or lesser extent. And so that period of time was going quite dangerous in terms of the hazards of landslides and the hazards of flooding, and quite busy for the MOAS as team as well.

MOAS: Thank you for your answer. To better understand what MOAS is doing in Bangladesh and to understand our role in the area, can you explain in detail what is the emergency response protocol we provide in Bangladesh through our technical expertise? How does it work in practice?

Dan Graham: So with any flood, whether that happens here in Cox’s Bazar, or in a high income country, there are four phases that every flood will go through. The first one is pre-flood; So we know it’s going to flood, we might not know exactly when or where, but it’s going to happen. And so that time is really useful for training, purchasing equipment, and preparing for the flood event. The second stage is now the rain is falling and the flood levels are coming up: this is our high risk period of time where the dangers are getting greater as those flood levels come up and so this is where we would see technical rescues taking place in countries that have that capability. The third phase is where essentially the rain is eased, or the water is eased, and the flood is starting to spread out, so we’re in the expansion phase, where infrastructure is being affected and the flood levels are starting to kind of ease and drop and so other hazards are starting to be exposed in this expansion phase. So now, we’re not really seeing many rescues. It might be rescue evacuations where people have been living upstairs in their house for a few days and an hour, a little bit sad and don’t like that anymore and want to get out of it. And then the fourth phase is the recovery and rebuilding: this is people getting back into their communities and getting their homes back in order getting their businesses up and running. And so our work as MOAS here in Bangladesh focus is very much in that first phase. You know, this is a huge country, or a small country with a huge population. And we cannot be everywhere and all things to all people. And so our model is one of teaching specialists volunteers within the community, how to manage the risk of flooding, and how to ensure the safety of their communities. And so we work with an organization called CPP, the Cyclone Preparedness Program has been established for I think over 30 years now as a as an arm of the government, and its volunteers in every village across the country, that have a responsibility for alerting the community during a cyclone. And so what our program does is enhance their skill-set, give them a little bit of equipment, give them a lot of training, so that not only are they useful in a cyclone, but they can also provide support and safety cover for their community in the event of flooding and monsoon. So that’s our ongoing work. We’ve been doing that, I’ve been involved in that program since the first day that I started in MOAS back in 2019, and that’s a core part of our programs here in Bangladesh. So it’s building the capacity of the refugee community and the local host community so that when the flood does come, they are better able to look after themselves more resilient as a community.
Obviously, in order to do that, we have a team of instructors that work with us in MOAS, they’re all local Bangladeshis. And so because of the training that they’ve received from me and my colleague, Paul, they’ve got quite a high level of skill. And so we are able to provide that team with additional equipment with additional skills to provide specific support into UN agencies as part of their flood response. And so that might be risk assessing access routes, so that it’s safe, we know it’s safe for a vehicle to pass down there that might be providing safety cover, while some essential construction or engineering work is going on to prevent further flooding. There’s a range of skills and tactics that we can offer that is pretty unique in the country, actually. And so that’s kind of where we are today. The third phase, the expansion phase and the recovery phase of flooding is really what the humanitarian sector is already good at. You know, there are phenomenal organizations that can manage hot food distribution and shelter rebuilding and all of that sort of thing. So we’re not involved so much in those in those areas. But certainly, our very strong message in this country is that the preparedness phase that level, that phase one, pre-flood, is the time to do all the hard work, because when the flood actually comes you don’t have a lot of time to train anyone or equip anyone, they need to be ready when that happens.

MOAS: Thank you Dan for such a detailed answer. I have one more question for you: what role can women play in the emergency response and in our training?

Dan Graham: Floods are a disaster that impact everybody who lives within the flooded area, whether their adult child, disabled, male, female, rich or poor, the impact happens to them all. Their ability to recover from that impact might be very different. Rich people can afford to buy new things that perhaps poor people can’t. So the distinction between men and women, I find an interesting one. Because I think my perspective is that if you’re in the flood, you are in danger. And if you’re an adult in the flood and able bodied, then male or female, help the people around, you help your family, help you help your children, which, obviously, that comes from my upbringing as a young person in the UK. Recognizing that the Rohingya community is a highly patriarchal and segregated society where women are quite often excluded from decision making and not involved in anything other than household duties, there is a big push from NGOs and the UN structure here to engage more women in all sorts of different programs. And as part of that, the CPP, who we work with, they’ve had a concerted effort in the last few years to increase the diversity of their groups and increase the number of women that are part of those groups. And so, because we don’t recruit directly for training, we train established groups with the diversity that they come with, it’s really difficult for us to directly promote or include more women than who are already included in these groups. But the training that we provide, is provided equally to both men and women, nobody is forced to participate in the practical training, they’re all invited and supported to. And some people are not comfortable in the water or concerned about things and so choose not to participate, that’s okay, and we record that and note that down, and they get a different certificate out of the end of it. And so, what we quite often see on the training is that it only takes one woman to kind of step forward and go, yeah, I’ll give it a go. And then all of a sudden, there are six, there are eight, there are 10: there’s almost a reluctance or a little bit of a shyness, perhaps, that once one person does it, that okay, we’re all in type of thing. And so actually, you know, our instructors have worked out a pretty good rapport and a kind of way of building the trust of groups that maybe are a little bit nervous and kind of encouraging them into the water and just taking it gently one step at a time. And kind of building their confidence throughout the training course, and we’ve seen some really, really positive results from that. So we’re really proud of the women that we teach and certainly as a privileged white male, I cannot hope to understand the types of social pressures and family pressures that a Rohingya refugee women might be under, but the ones that we see volunteering for the CPP program and coming through our training course, they do a fantastic job on the training course, and I’m sure would do their very best to do a fantastic job when the call comes to respond to flooding.

MOAS: So, that’s all my questions today. Thank you once again for taking the time to talk through this with me. It’s been amazing and I have learned a lot, I really hope the listeners have learned something new on our amazing projects in Bangladesh.
For more information and updates on our work in Bangladesh you can check out MOAS’s website and social media.

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