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Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: “The need for clean water is extreme”
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, just returned from an assignment in southeast Bangladesh and tells us of the terrible conditions the refugees face, and the solutions MSF is putting in place.
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.
Ensuring clean drinking water
Our priority, as always in such situations, is to ensure that clean and drinking water is available in the clinic we have set up in the settlement.
We need to guarantee that the health structure is not a place where people can be contaminated with other diseases, notably diarrheal diseases.
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.
We have managed to make use of the river, the main source of water. Our teams have led a campaign to sensitise people not to contaminate the river.
We have also 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 standard 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 technique, but making it bigger and safer.
We have started to dig infiltration “wells”, up to two metres in diameter, and up to five metres deep, with the objective of having 15 to 20 soon.
They will have concrete platforms to avoid the dirt getting in, a little wall to stop flood water and a lining inside to stop surface water to contaminate it.
And of course the water will be chlorinated.
The main difficulty, with such a surface and such a 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 from with our health promotion teams.
These most vulnerable and most at risk families living near the future wells will also receive jerry cans and a hygiene and disinfection kit. And it’s also key that the community is fully involved.
MSF’s health promotion team will help and train them on how to chlorinate the water and maintain the water systems.
The coming months in Uchiparang
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 each day.
It is important that MSF and other organisations 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 that not because people can swim in them but to give an idea of their size.
They are seven by seven metres and four metres deep, and can contain 200 cubic metres of water.
They catch both rain and underground water. This is not a new or a foreign idea. Such tanks are present in every mosque and in some private houses in the area.
And MSF has built such systems in other emergency interventions, for instance in Myanmar, after cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta area in May 2008."