In just over a month, more than half a million Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh following a wave of targeted violence in the neighbouring Rakhine State of Myanmar. Most of the newly arrived refugees have moved into makeshift settlements without adequate access to shelter, food, clean water, or latrines. Paul Jawor, MSF water and sanitation expert, has just returned and gives an update on how MSF plans to provide sufficient clean water in one of the settlements.
What’s the situation in Bangladesh?
I have rarely seen so many people, hundreds of thousands, living in makeshift shelters, stranded in an area with the size of a small European city, and with very little access to basic services. Assistance is being rolled out, but the needs of the refugees, especially access to drinking and clean water, are still extreme. In Unchiparang, one of the settlements where MSF is providing healthcare, access to water is horrendous. The 33,000 people living there only drink untreated surface water, which they collect from paddy fields, puddles, or hand-dug shallow wells. Many of the rare latrines available are already overflowing so people defecate in the open, further polluting the water. Unchiparang has a small river running through it and the surrounding ground is of very heavy impermeable clay and gets very muddy and wet when it rains. And if you dig too deep, you very soon tap into salty water due to the proximity of the sea.
"It is important that MSF and other actors anticipate and put in place water systems that can sustain the dry season"
What is MSF doing?
Our priority is to ensure that clean and drinking water is available in the clinic we have set up in the settlement. The medical staff needs to be able to clean their hands and material; patients need to be able to take their drugs with a glass of clean water. Then we have managed to make use of the main source of water, the river. Our teams have led a campaign to sensitize the population not to contaminate the river and installed a long pipe leading to huge tanks that could deliver up to 30,000 litres of chlorinated and clean water per day. That’s really under standards for such a large population, but we are adding more water capacity as we speak, especially for people who have settled far from the river.
In other locations, we will be using the traditional “borehole” in the ground technic, but making it bigger and safer with the objective of having 15 to 20 soon. The main difficulty, with such a large population to cover is to choose where to dig the boreholes. We have looked at our clinic’s medical records and identified locations where many of the diarrhea cases are coming with our health promotion teams. These most vulnerable and most at risk families living near the future wells will also receive jerry cans, a hygiene and disinfection kit.
How will the situation evolve in the coming months?
With the dry season coming, and more refugees coming in every day, access to water will remain a main concern in all settlements. In Unchiparang, the river running through the settlement will dry up, as every year, in two or three months, and the boreholes will provide less and less water per day. It is important that MSF and other actors anticipate and put in place water systems that can sustain the dry season. One of the things we plan to do is to build four “swimming pools” in the Unchiparang settlement. We call them like that not because people can swim in them but to give an idea of their size. They are 7x7 meters and 4 meters deep, and can contain 200 cubic meters of water. They catch both rain and underground water.