Canal cleaning to shield Bangladeshis, Rohingya refugees from monsoons: UN

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Rome, May 22 (IANS/AKI) A major canal dredging and renovation project is underway to protect local residents and refugees in southern Bangladesh from impending monsoon floods, the United Nations migration agency said on Tuesday.

The $20,000 canal clearing project is one of several initiated by the International Organisation for Migration to safeguard hundreds of thousands of people in Cox’s Bazar ahead of heavy monsoon rains and the cyclone season, the agency said.

The Site Maintenance Engineering Project (SMEP), funded by the US, Canada and agricultural support agency ECHO, is part of an interagency initiative involving IOM, the UN World Food Programme and refugee agency UNHCR, IOM said.

Over nine kilometres of abandoned canals are currently being dredged and renovated in Cox’s Bazar’s Ukhiya sub-district to prevent flooding and allow water runoff during heavy rains in the region, which is prone to some of the heaviest monsoon downpours in Bangladesh, it added.

IOM has employed 50 labourers from the Ukhiya village of Hakimpara to carry out the work, which is part of a wider disaster preparedness programme supported by IOM.

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The project will not only help safeguard lives and livelihoods in Hakimpara and neighbouring Jamtoli when the monsoon hits, reducing the risk of flooding, but will also provide an opportunity to boost local agriculture, said IOM.

In previous years, flooding from the blocked canals damaged or destroyed up to 70 acres of rice paddy, according to local community leaders. Once cleared, the canals will also provide irrigation during the dry season, they say.

“There was no water flow in the canal, as it hadn’t been maintained for years. This resulted in flooding in the surrounding communities during the monsoon as the rainwater coming down from the adjacent hills couldn’t flow through,” said Damon Elsworth, IOM’s camp coordination and camp management operation officer.

The hilly district of Cox’s Bazar has already had the first rains of the season and was already prone to landslides and flooding even before the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar, IOM said. And the situation has become more precarious since the refugees – desperate to find places to build shelters for their families – cleared vegetation from surrounding hills, causing soil erosion.

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Almost 700,000 refugees have arrived in Cox’s Bazar since late August last year, putting a major strain on local infrastructure, IOM underlined. Most of the new arrivals live in desperately over-crowded conditions on the cleared slopes, which are now at ever greater risk of landslides and collapse during heavy rains, the agency warned.

SMEP aims to tackle a range of monsoon risks. Prepositioned machinery in ten sites across the district will tackle clear roads and waterways if landslides and floods block key access routes. SMEP engineers, local workers and refugees are also preparing safer land to relocate refugees from the most dangerous parts of the camps.

Local residents working on the canal clearing project said they felt happy to be working to protect their community. “It feels good that we were consulted at every step of this dredging work. It feels like it is our property that we’re working for,” said Syed Kashem, 65, a local community leader overseeing the dredging work.

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IOM is also working with local community groups, each comprised of six refugees and five members of the host community and has supported 24 quick-impact projects in the area. They include building bridges, access roads, steps, drains, and slope protection work that will enable communities to better weather the monsoon, the agency said.

Locals in Cox’s Bazar have also been trained in first aid, search and rescue, and fire safety to tackle disasters including cyclones and heavy rains and volunteer groups given tools to work alongside aid agencies, IOM said.

Refugee camps risk being hampered by adverse weather and IOM said it is also stockpiling emergency aid including tarpaulins, bamboo, food, water and medical supplies at its new Hnilla, Teknaf logistics hub, funded by Saudi aid agency KSrelief.

–IANS/AKI

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