The influx of more than 700,000 people from Myanmar’s Rakhine State into Cox’s Bazar District in neighboring Bangladesh in August 2017 created a humanitarian crisis. Joining concerted international efforts, ADB quickly mobilized ADF grant funding of $100 million to help ensure this emergency situation did not escalate further.

The 32 camps in which the displaced persons took shelter already hosted hundreds of thousands of others from earlier influxes. Conditions were cramped, primitive, and left families exposed to the threats of cyclones, flash floods, and landslides that are perennial hazards on the southeast coast of Bangladesh.

The ADF grant was approved in only 8 weeks, and in just 12 months it had funded the installation of streetlights, piped water systems, lightning arresters, and community bathing facilities for many camp residents. Better roads, sanitation, small power systems, and cyclone shelters to help make camp residents and host communities safer are all on the way.

ADB is also working with the World Food Programme to establish food distribution centers that will help feed tens of thousands of people in need every day.

Stories from these camps and the ADF’s involvement in helping to restore the dignity and lift the spirits of displaced people are featured in the pages that follow.

Exhausted and in shock, the many thousands who sought refuge in the camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District in August 2017 arrived to scenes of destitution.

The little shelter available was ramshackle; existing roads, pathways, and sanitation facilities were inadequate; and food and water were in short supply. Soon, forest areas the size of four football fields were being clear-cut each day for fuel because there was no power.

“While the future looks less uncertain for the residents of the camps than it did a year ago, ongoing support is needed in multiple areas.”

As camp populations exploded, demand surged, and commodity prices spiked. Diarrhea, cholera, and diphtheria—diseases that can prove epidemic in conditions of overcrowding, stress, malnutrition, and poor sanitation—were soon being reported.

ADB’s response in mid-2018 through the ADF-funded Bangladesh Emergency Assistance Project aimed to meet the needs of the displaced persons and help take some of the strain off the surrounding host communities, now outnumbered three to one by the new arrivals and forced into competing with them for access to already scarce resources and services.

ADB is rolling out the project alongside assistance from other development partners under the United Nations Inter Sector Coordination Group.

A year after it started, the camps have more than 6,000 additional streetlamps, 200 lightning arresters to protect people and buildings against strikes, 300 community bathing facilities, and 40 new mini piped water systems.

Children enjoying water from a standpipe
Camp life. Children enjoying water from a standpipe (photo by Abir Abdullah).

The 10 cyclone shelters being built in and around the camps will be used by the displaced persons and the host communities during heavy storms. The rest of the time they will be used as schools and for other functions. Also still to come are upgrades to improve roads in and around the camps, including on a 50-kilometer stretch of the main supply link between Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf, on the border with Myanmar. The project will install 50 solar microgrid systems, a 50-kilometer distribution line, and an electricity substation to provide power to the camps, leading to reduced damage to forest reserves and critical ecosystems.

The fecal sludge management plant that ADB is financing under the project to produce clean drinking water and energy for cooking for the camps will be the first in Bangladesh.

The path ahead

While the future looks less uncertain for the residents of the camps than it did a year ago, ongoing support is needed in multiple areas.

The living conditions remain precarious, the threats from disasters and health emergencies persist, and the 100 babies born on average each day are adding to overcrowding and the burden on still limited services.

“The first phase is being implemented well and quickly,” says Manmohan Parkash, country director of ADB’s Bangladesh Resident Mission. “Coordination among the donors and development agencies, including the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank, has been good. If a second phase of the project comes, it could even be better.”

Food Distribution Collaboration Mujtaba Khatun
Easier food access. Mujtaba Khatun says having a food distribution center near her home will save her time, money, and worry (photo by Abir Abdullah).

ADB’s partnership with the World Food Programme to set up 10 distribution centers to provide tens of thousands of people in the camps with food each day will be greatly welcomed by Mujtaba Khatun.

She now makes a 2-hour journey twice a month to get food supplies from a center 1.5 kilometers away. When she can’t afford the transport fare, Mujtaba must carry the heavy sacks of rice and liter cans of oil all the way back.

“It’s hard physically,” says the 30-year-old, “but I’m also very anxious and alert during these trips about protecting my two children. It’s so easy for them to get lost on the way to and from the pick-up center, and yet I can’t leave them back at the camp without worrying about their safety.”

One of the new ADF-funded distribution centers will be built close to where she lives. The task of collecting food for her family will be cut from the current 2 hours to about 15 minutes.

“It will be a great relief to know I can walk a shorter distance to get food for my children and at the same time keep them safe,” says Mujtaba, who is also looking forward to the planned opening of a small market in the same vicinity as the center where she will be able to buy fresh vegetables and fish.

Meeting water needs water tanks in Kutupalong camp
Meeting water needs. ADB-funded piped water systems, like these water tanks in Kutupalong camp, will serve the needs of 240,000 people (photo by Abir Abdullah).

Like Mujtaba, Jane Alom is familiar with the long walks and heavy loads often necessary in camp conditions to even partially fulfill a family’s most basic daily needs.

“The nearest tube well was more than a kilometer away,” says the 45-year-old father of four in his shelter at a camp in Ukhia Subdistrict. “There were long queues, and we often waited up to half an hour.”

Sometimes, two collections a day were not enough. “We could only carry a limited amount of water,” he says, “much of which got used for the toilet. We had to cut back on bathing and brushing our teeth. Our bodies and clothing often smelled.”

The challenges facing Jane’s family are far from over, but the installation under the ADF-financed operation of a new mini piped water system with standpipe distribution points and round-the-clock supplies close to where they live has reduced the discomforts of their daily lives and raised the likelihood that they can remain healthy.

“We can bathe regularly now,” Jane says, “and keep our home clean.”

The water facilities ADB and the ADF have helped install will meet the full needs of 240,000 people daily and are expected to reduce the incidence of waterborne diseases in the camps by 20% by 2021.

ADB-financed streetlights Joynuba
Lighting the way. Joynuba says until the ADB-financed streetlights were installed she and her family were afraid to move around outside at night (photo by Abir Abdullah).

Camp life can inspire many fears. Among them, for Joynuba and her four children, has been fear of the dark. Most of the camps into which the displaced persons arrived had no streetlights.

“We were really afraid to go outside at night,” says the 25-year-old mother. “The toilets were a long way from our house. We worried about attacks by snakes, insects, and even wild elephants.” So, when Joynuba’s son injured his hand one night, they stayed home rather than face the darkness and seek treatment from a doctor.

The ADF-supported project has brightened things up with 2,000 new streetlights connected to mini grids and 4,000 new stand-alone LED lights. All this lighting is powered by built-in solar panels.

“We feel much safer,” says Joynuba. “We go out anytime now, even to the market at night. We’re no longer afraid.”

The project is also helping protect a human value and right often worn thin by the conditions in the camps—personal dignity.

Women like 58-year-old Bahar Begum, a mother of four, endured a dangerous, draining 13-day journey to cross the border and reach the camps. They had neither time nor opportunity to bathe properly as they moved and yet found no private bathing facilities when they arrived.

“It was shameful to wash in the open,” says Bahar, “so we were unable to clean ourselves properly.”

This problem, a common one for thousands of women throughout the camps, has been solved for Bahar and many others by the project’s ADFfunded construction of new community bathing facilities for women and children. The project has built 300 to date, and 300 more are being added.

“We now have our privacy,” Bahar says. “We can wash regularly and in safety.”

Street vendor Md Shahjahan selling jackfruits in Kutupalong camp
Better roads for better income. Street vendor Md Shahjahan selling jackfruits in Kutupalong camp, Ukhia Subdistrict, Cox’s Bazar District (photo by Abir Abdullah).

Taslima Akter lives in a community near one of the camps. On weekdays, she and her 10-yearold brother and 8-year-old sister must walk 2.5 kilometers each way to and from Folia Para Primary School. When the weather is good, it takes 30–40 minutes. When the monsoon comes, it is a long, dirty, dangerous journey.

Roads that turn into muddy traffic-clogged quagmires in the rains are a burden on camp dwellers and host communities alike. Accidents increase, school desks empty, small businesses and livelihoods suffer, and the overall sense of well-being of the resident and displaced populations dips substantially until the monsoon ends.

“We have to wade through sections of deep mud,” says Taslima, 13. “Our clothes are always a mess.”

She also fears for herself and her younger siblings. “There are so many vehicles and we have to hug the side of the road. All three of us know we could get hit and injured.”

That fear keeps many students away from school, she says, and records show that attendance at local schools has dropped as the traffic and road conditions have worsened.

Taslima expects this trend to reverse once the project’s ADF-funded road upgrades are completed. The works include upgrading 30 kilometers of internal camp roads and 30 kilometers of rural feeder roads, which will make transport between food storage and distribution centers, field hospitals, primary schools, and the cyclone shelters quicker and more efficient; and resurfacing the 50-kilometer road that serves as the camps’ main supply route.

The road Taslima and her younger brother and sister take to class each day is among those slated for improvement. “Once they fix the road and widen it,” she says, “I think many of my friends will come back to school because it will be easier and safer.”

Small businesses in the host communities and the camps themselves are also enmired by the awful road conditions during monsoon season. Deliveries of food and other crucial supplies often take double or triple the usual time to arrive when the main road is muddy and washed out, according to restaurant owner Jahir Ahmed, who set up his café near a camp in Ukhia Subdistrict about 15 months ago. Transport costs also rise. Fish and vegetables are damaged or go bad due to delays.

“We serve up to 300 people a day now,” says Jahir, 45, “but we hope to make that more than 1,000 after the road is improved. It helps that transport costs will drop, which means we can offer lower prices.”

Md Shahjahan, who sells jackfruits, oranges, and other seasonal fruits at Mochara Bazar Camp, shares Jahir’s complaints, as well as his hopes. He highlights the expected benefits from road improvement that he can pass on to camp inhabitants. “Bad roads and high costs mean I have to charge more for my goods,” he says. “After the road is upgraded, I can lower my prices for people here and at the same time boost my sales.”

Restaurant owner Jahir knows that the poor transport infrastructure in the area can also take a high human toll. When the ambulance bound for hospital on the main road scheduled for improvement under the project was held up in traffic, his brother’s wife lost her baby.

Storm shelters Tashlima Begum
Storm shelters. Tashlima Begum, who lives in a host community near a camp in Ukhia Subdistrict, says new ADB-financed storm shelters will keep her community safe during natural disasters, including floods and cyclones (photo by Abir Abdullah).

The coast on which hundreds of thousands have found refuge from uncertainty and hazards elsewhere is not without perils of its own.

Tashlima Begum lives in Ukhia Subdistrict not far from the camps. Two years ago, she and her two children had to flee for their lives when her home was inundated by flash flooding. These floods, along with cyclones and landslides, are fairly common occurrences in the Bay of Bengal, and are expected to become more frequent and severe with climate change.

“We managed to scramble up a nearby hill with just the clothes we were wearing,” says 25-yearold Tashlima. “We lived up there for 6 days, including 3 in the open before we got hold of a plastic tarpaulin that gave us a little shelter.” Everything they had was washed away, including vital livestock and a crop of vegetables. Tashlima and her family rebuilt their house from scratch.

Like the local host communities and people, the camps and their residents face real risks from flooding, landslides, or both. The land they occupy is either low-lying or on or near steep slopes. Heavy rains and landslides destroyed more than 1,800 dwellings in mid-July 2019.

Project remedies include slope protection works on more than 5 kilometers of hillsides, construction of 5 kilometers of storm water drains, and the development of a gender-sensitive disaster risk management plan.

Tashlima is especially happy about the cyclone shelters, which will protect people from both the camps and the surrounding communities during extreme weather events. Her family’s own traumatic experience is understandably at the top of her mind. “The building of the cyclone shelters means we can all be safe during bad floods.”

Learn more about the Asian Development Fund (ADF).

This article was originally published in Together We Deliver, a publication highlighting successful ADB projects across Asia and the Pacific that demonstrated development impacts, best practice, and innovation.