Latter-day Saint Charities Updates

On the Ground in Bangladesh

Refugee shelters in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

My name is Jeff Foy and I’m the emergency response manager for LDS Charities. This is the story of our response to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh. This is the world’s largest refugee camp and with pending monsoons, cyclones, a high potential for wildfires, and other challenges, people are referring to it as a disaster within a disaster.

I didn’t see many roads in the camp. Without roads there’s no way to distribute supplies throughout the camp. Soon after the Rohingya started coming in, the military built an access road that I stood on as I took this picture. But this road is 20 feet above the ground below and in the monsoon season it will act like a dam. That means most of the houses you can see from the road will probably be flooded with contaminated water.

These are buckets and containers that people line up to save their spots in line to receive water when it is delivered. One of the biggest problems refugees face in the camps is access to fresh water. In some parts of the camp, agencies are trucking in and sanitizing water from a nearby canal, but they can only bring it to filling stations a few times a week.

The buckets and containers aren’t very clean. About 70 percent of the water gets contaminated by the time it gets to the homes, where it’s used for drinking, bathing, cooking, and cleaning.

The Rohingya refugees are only allowed to build temporary shelters without permanent foundations. One of the projects I visited was a prototype shelter made with buried bamboo posts, which will hopefully be able to withstand cyclones and heavy winds. Crossbeams under the poles stabilize the shelter without creating a true foundation. The refugees have survived unspeakable chaos, and projects like this are one of the ways we are working to address other immediate needs, like surviving the cyclones and monsoons.

One of our partners, World Food Programme, is constructing storage tents for food distribution. LDS Charities is helping distribute food at points throughout the camps, but with the monsoon and cyclone season, people may not be able to come to these points. The storage tents will hopefully allow us to respond faster to food needs during an emergency.

The goal is to be able to store enough supplies to feed the camp for a month. For a million people, that’s a lot of supplies.

When I was walking through the camps, it was hot and dry. Now the monsoon season has begun. Mudslides and flooding are a huge risk. Many homes are in danger of landslides. Here’s a picture from our partner CARE. Notice the high water level compared to the previous picture. Flooding is a real danger.

Another big challenge in the camps is civil engineering. Nearly a million people moved here from August to December of last year. People came and built homes, but the infrastructure, water systems, latrines, and roads weren’t planned out. Refugees are flattening and leveling off hills using heavy equipment, and some are doing the same with picks and shovels. The hope is that people will move their shelters to the flattened tops of these hills, where they can build better roads, help put in latrines, and avoid the dangers of mudslides.

One of the coolest programs we’re working on in the camps is an electronic food voucher system. Normally refugees receive rice, lentils, and cooking oil for their food supply, and they have no other options. This electronic system will give people choices. For example, they can take a little less rice to get some onions, or they can take fewer lentils to get some eggs. These options enhance and add variety to their diet. Refugees will have a preloaded allotment on their cards. This system helps avoid fraud, but most importantly, it gives people some control over their lives again.

The Rohingya people are very private. Latrines are located throughout the camp, but the ratio is one toilet per 50 people. Some people build their own makeshift latrines on the side of their homes. This, of course, introduces sanitation and hygiene issues. But the refugees construct these personal latrines for privacy and safety. Absence of aid workers after dark and lack of lighting makes it difficult for women and children to safely use the latrines. We’re working with several partners on latrine and hygiene solutions.

We’re so grateful to work with amazing partners that value sustainable response to emergencies and crises around the world. We will continue working with UNICEF and our other partners to help these Rohingya refugees as much as we can.