Shelter in Cox’s Bazar: A refugee-led approach to safe shelter

by 09th Jul 2019
A woman using rope to secure the roof of her shelter A woman using rope to secure the roof of her shelter

“Here, we have six seasons,” explained CARE’s Shelter Programme Manager, Shah Suja, as we raced along the road that connects Cox’s Bazar town to the refugee camps. Those “six seasons” bring searing heat, torrential rain, cyclones and storm surges – and with nearly a million refugees now living in this hilly and fragile terrain, with no immediate prospects of returning home and yet prohibited from using durable construction materials, creating and maintaining safe shelters is a real challenge.

With support from the players of the UK People’s Postcode Lottery, I was deployed from CARE’s global emergency shelter team to Cox’s Bazar with CARE Bangladesh in early November 2018. CARE is funded by IOM to be the Site Management Support agency assisting the Government of Bangladesh to manage two of the 34 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district. These two camps are home to approximately 15,000 households (around 75,000 individuals).

CARE is also the main Shelter-NFI partner in both of these camps, responsible to coordinate other emergency shelter actors who are working there; strategise with other sectors (such as agencies providing water, sanitation and hygiene promotion) on how to more effectively meet the range of complex needs; and importantly to take the lead in emergency response, such as in the distribution of emergency shelter materials when shelters are damaged or destroyed by weather, or of NFIs – non-food items that meet basic household needs, such as floor mats, clothes, and cooking equipment.

The challenges of working in densely-populated but fragile terrain

In the areas where CARE provides camp management services (Camp 16 in Palongkali and Camp 13 in the Kutapalong-Balukhali Expansion site, known as the “mega-camp”), refugee families now outnumber host community households tenfold. Camp 13 is the second most populous camp, and highly congested: the average amount of space per person residing in the settlement area is less than 15m², compared to the recommended global minimum standard of 45m² per person.

The camps are located on rolling hills and valleys creating a range of different terrains, topographies and even microclimates – so that when it rains or when there is a heavy wind it is very hard to predict where and what damage there may be.

The sandy soil crumbles during the rain, meaning that the risk of subsidence is constant – and increases substantially during monsoon. Run-off from the tops of the hills creates landslides and flash flooding, which topple shelters and pose serious risk to inhabitants, particularly children and those with mobility problems.

These natural challenges have been compounded by human activity, not least by deforestation as a result of almost one million additional people living in a previously rural, agricultural area. The great demand for firewood as cooking fuel has contributed to deforestation, meaning that landslide and soil erosion is exacerbated, while firewood collection also contributes to gender-based violence risks. Some of the camps are even located on elephant migration routes, which brings elephants into conflict with humans and has resulted in injury and death.

The impact on rural lives and livelihoods of both refugee and host community – as well as on the environment – has been substantial. Therefore the technical challenges extend beyond one project or set of construction works, and form part of a wider, macro-planning and resilience approach.

Surviving the monsoon and cyclone seasons

I arrived at a time when CARE was constructing “Mid-Term Shelters” and “transitional shelters”, theoretically designed to withstand windspeeds of up to 60km per hour and thus providing greater resistance to the monsoon.

The use of durable materials, such as reinforced concrete and steel, is not allowed in the refugee camps. Situated on forestry and rich agricultural land, all construction is meant to be “temporary” – meaning that the only permissible construction materials are bamboo, tarpaulin and rope, with unreinforced concrete and brick only allowed for site-level infrastructure.

Not only has the demand for bamboo been so high that there is now limited availability in Bangladesh, but agencies are now having to use untreated and less mature bamboo than is ideal. While there are great benefits to bamboo – speed of construction, familiarity amongst local populations, flexibility – it is also not sufficiently durable for long term use.

For example, structural (“borak”) bamboo has to be embedded in the ground for stability but it rots or is attacked by beetles within six months. This means that structural members need regular monitoring and replacement by the Rohingya communities themselves if they are to maintain their shelters to withstand the weather.

The engineering firm Arup had sent a team to support in research on wind loading and structural bamboo usage, and developed a series of recommendations on how to improve the durability and wind-resistance of the shelters through quite simple modifications – for example, in raising the bamboo columns up out of the ground through using concrete or metal footings, for bracing and strengthening connections, and for anchoring roofs to the ground using guy ropes and buried sandbags.

Training, technical assistance – and learning

This has required a wide range of training, communication and technical assistance to be rolled out to households in the camps. There are very high levels of craftsmanship and construction skills with timber and bamboo among both refugee and local host communities, which has been useful to help supplement household economiesdevelop vocational skills through on-the-job training, and support local markets.

Infrastructural interventions go hand-in-hand with a range of other measures, such as plantation strategies (e.g. vetiver on slopes and riparian areas alongside water channels) to reduce soil erosion, using sediment traps, terracing and jute matting to reduce silt blockages in waterways, or installing measures to slow down the water flow in areas prone to flash flooding, redirecting water into catchment areas and thus protecting vulnerable shelters and households.

A self-led approach to shelter upgrading

In coordination with other organisations, CARE is now moving towards a self-led approach to shelter upgrading – where the refugees are provided with materials (such as metal footings, structural “borak” bamboo and rope) to upgrade their own shelters to withstand the winds and rain, as part of a “transitional shelter assistance” package.

People arrived and built their own shelters with whatever materials they could find, in whatever space they could find, leading to informal settlements that now need to be upgraded to meet standards to protect the health, safety and dignity of all members of the community. According to the Shelter-NFI Sector, 93% of households have not received any further shelter support since the initial materials received when they first arrived, and are therefore at high risk of their shelters being damaged or destroyed during the wind and rain storms of the coming season.

The fact is that humanitarian agencies cannot single-handedly and directly support such an enormous population. Despite the huge amount of progress that has been made since 2017, less than 10% of what is actually needed has been possible for this huge population in need. Through prioritisation and mapping exercises, CARE has been identifying the areas at highest risk (for example, of flooding, high wind exposure, landslide, bridge collapse, foundation weaknesses, etc) and tackling those works first.

Similarly, the shelters have been prioritised by those at greatest risk or poorest quality, particularly with regard to foundations and footings. But the need remains huge – CARE Bangladesh currently estimates that 4,000 households (approximately 20,000 people) will be seriously affected by the monsoon winds and rain (peaking in June and July) in CARE’s two camps alone. They will require emergency shelter materials – tarpaulin, rope, bamboo – to be able to reconstruct their shelters rapidly if they are damaged or destroyed.

As part of Disaster Risk Reduction, the refugee communities themselves have to take a leading role in their own safety and as first-responders in the event of incidents, such as landslides, flooding and fire.

This means that “safe shelter” training and awareness, simplified to be easily understood by all, and technical assistance and monitoring by NGO engineers has to accompany all constructed interventions.

Through engaging the refugees in construction, training and awareness is conducted “on the job”. They are then supported to be the “focal points” in their neighbourhoods to further spread DRR and safe construction messaging and to support others with construction, using three key messages to ensure the fragile, self-built shelters can withstand the monsoon rains: tying down your roof with rope and sandbags; strengthening your bamboo structure connections through rope lashing; and digging, cleaning and maintaining drainage around the shelter.

Our commitment to inclusion and gender equality

At the heart of our approach is a commitment towards inclusion, gender equality and the effective integration of gender throughout humanitarian action. For example, Gender in Emergencies specialists link up with shelter and infrastructure engineers to organise group discussions, consultation and information-sharing sessions and participatory planning exercises to identify risks, prioritise activities and design programmes.

In the past six months, the number of female staff in the Shelter team has increased by 43% – a significant feat given that many conservative attitudes prevail in this area, in a substantially male-dominated field of work. CARE’s women-and-girls safe spaces (WGSS) are the stage for a range of activities, from site planning and community risk mapping, to skills-development and learning, and are an essential hub in the community where women and girls make up the vast majority of the refugee population.

As Cyclone Fani threatened to make landfall in the first week of May this year, CARE’s female shelter team designed and oversaw the tying down of all WGSS roofs in preparation for high winds, in parallel training WGSS and CARE gender staff on safe shelter monitoring and maintenance for the future. This enables the WGSS to be used as safe temporary relocation shelters, particularly for female headed households, in case shelters are destroyed.

CARE’s range of shelter, site development and infrastructure and site management work over the past year is funded by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), USAID-OFDA, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), LDS Charities, Danish Emergency Relief Fund (DERF), Danish Relief Alliance (DRA), as well as with contingency funding from Aktion Deutschland Hilft (ADH) and the Luxembourg Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

CARE International UK’s support to CARE Bangladesh’s humanitarian response programme was made possible with the support of the players of the UK People’s Postcode Lottery.

Watch this video to see more information on the progress CARE has made towards monsoon preparedness, as well as the challenges ahead:

Crystal Whitaker

I joined CARE’s Humanitarian Technical Team as Emergency Shelter Advisor in May 2018, after over eight years on deployment in the Balkans, Middle East and West Africa. I initially trained in architecture in the UK before moving to Kosovo where I was involved in urban, rural and municipal spatial planning, durable solutions, return and reintegration processes, and the protection of cultural heritage, with a number of organisations such as the Danish Refugee Council, UNDP, the Council of Europe and the International Civilian Office. I have since transitioned into early recovery, humanitarian and emergency fields, broadening technical experience as a first-line responder in the management and coordination of multi-sectorial RRM, Food Security, Shelter/NFI and WASH activities, most recently in northern and central Iraq and in northeast Nigeria. A central interest is in where and how immediate humanitarian relief activities can contribute incrementally to longer term, more durable, integrated and sustainable solutions for both displaced, hosting and affected populations, with a focus on the nature of communication and engagement between local authorities, communities and individuals to enable ownership and agency to positive effect. For this I have tried to gain practical, ‘hands on’ experience in the field to better understand the varying contexts and conditions encountered over time by communities in crisis.

One good thing I’ve read

A series of texts I read during the early days of moving from architecture to the development world helped in my understanding of active conflicts and in defining the possibilities for reconciliation or peaceful tolerance (or not) in the lengthy and indeterminate period after a conflict, particularly when there is an ethnic dimension to the violence: Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict by Andrew Herscher, Monument and Crime: The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Kosovo by Andrew Herscher and András Riedlmayer, and Prishtina is Everywhere - Turbo-Urbanism: the Aftermath of a Crisis edited by Kai Vöckler.