Building back better with refugees for a greener Bangladesh

Rohingya camp area before in 2019 (L) and after reforestation in 2020

Bangladesh ranks third in the world among countries most hit by natural disasters. Its low elevation and high population density make it particularly vulnerable to these climate hazards, including cyclones, flooding and rising sea levels.

Despite these odds, Bangladesh is recognised as a success story due to its climate action policy, which includes strong community-wide training, education campaigns, anticipatory and preparatory action, and significant infrastructure investments. As the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) enters its final week, we have an opportunity to reflect on and recognise some leading climate change and environmental initiatives taken by Bangladesh.

The presence of close to one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in 34 congested camps in Cox’s Bazar District – the largest concentration of refugees globally – also poses additional climate related challenges.

In the first six months following the arrival of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees in 2017, the Government generously allowed them to find refuge in an area spanning over 6,000 sqm of natural forest reserve. The rapid influx and lack of preparation led to trees being cut down to set up shelters and use as firewood for cooking and covering refugees’ most basic needs. In turn, this led to increased risks of landslides and flooding in the camps, not only posing grave risks to the lives of refugees, but also adding to one of Bangladesh and the region’s, main environmental challenges - deforestation.

UNHCR and other humanitarian actors, together with the Government of Bangladesh, are working to “build back better” by enhancing the resilience of refugees and the local communities both to climate-related risks, including cyclones and monsoons, and environmental risks such as land degradation, soil erosion and deforestation.

More than 3,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees have received training on how to manage tree nurseries, plant and care for seedlings, and protect young trees. Through the regreening project supported by UNHCR, they have replanted over 600 hectares and added grasses at streams to help treat wastewater and reduce pollution levels.

Volunteers’ tasks also include replanting trees ripped out by landslides, protecting wildlife, and raising awareness in their communities about the need to protect the forests in the lush corner of southern Bangladesh. Trained volunteers also carry out disaster risk reduction activities, including slope stabilisation to mitigate exposure to landslides and land degradation during monsoon season.

The success of reforestation has also depended on the introduction of clean cooking alternatives, such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) to the local and refugee communities. This has prevented people from requiring 700 tonnes of firewood every day to meet essential needs. Since September 2018, UNHCR and IOM have provided over 70 million kilograms of LPG to both Bangladeshis and Rohingya living in the Cox’s Bazar District.

The introduction of LPG has also yielded social cohesion dividends between refugee and local communities, reducing tensions related to the deforestation on host community land and had additional benefits for communities themselves, reducing cooking times and allowing women to focus on other tasks, including gardening and supporting their children’s education. Notably, incidences of gender-based violence have also reduced as women no longer have to walk long distances alone, sometimes in the dark, to collect firewood for cooking. Use of LPG also freed up shelters and homes from smoke and toxic gases which are harmful to health.

As part of a community wide training initiative over 200,000 individuals in the Bangladeshi and refugee communities in Cox’s Bazar received information or training on how to respond in case of an elephant encounter, as the forest is home to the famous and endangered Asian elephant. With additional support, 100 Elephant Response Teams have been formed and equipped. They help ensure community safety by preventing human-elephant encounters, reducing the number of human deaths from 14 in 2017, to zero since the programme started in 2018. The success of this collaboration can also be witnessed by the recent birth of ten baby elephant cubs, marking huge strides in protecting the critically endangered species.

To anticipate and prepare for recurring seasonal weather events such as cyclones, over 2000 Cyclone Preparedness Rohingya and Bangladeshi volunteers have been trained by UNHCR partners to hoist warning flags, make loudspeaker announcements, evacuate households in flood prone areas and be first responders to damage in the camps in the initial hours following landfall. Their training has built extraordinary community resilience and saved lives. These are just some examples of UNHCR’s commitment to empowering refugees and their host communities prepare for, and adapt to, the impacts of climate change in Bangladesh. There are hundreds more.

Capacity sharing and strengthening initiatives, between the Government, Bangladeshis, refugees, and humanitarians, play a key role in empowering individuals to build resilience and disseminate knowledge within their communities to create a better future for all.

COP26 has reignited the urgency of climate action across the globe. At UNHCR we commit to providing support to affected countries and displaced communities who have the fewest resources to prepare and adapt. We also encourage the meaningful participation and leadership of the displaced in the planning and implementation of climate action policy. In Bangladesh, we reiterate our commitment to continue to “build back better” in Cox’s Bazar District and support Bangladesh to continue their climate action work and sharing of innovative climate action practices at a global level.

* Written by Johannes van der Klaauw, UNHCR Representative in Bangladesh