When a cyclone hit low-lying Kutubdia Island in the Bay of Bengal, water surged across Nur Jahan’s small plot of land and swept her six children away. The youngest was still an infant, the oldest, nine years old.

“The sea took my children first. Nobody survived,” she said.

Nur Jahan tried to rebuild her life on the island but she was now battling the encroaching sea. “First it was just storm surges. Then, even during a normal tide, water was flooding over the embankment.”

“Kutubdia was drowning every day.”

As her neighbours’ houses began to collapse into the lapping waves, Nur Jahan fled to mainland Bangladesh. Today, she lives in an urban enclave in the town of Cox’s Bazar, with dozens of other displaced islanders like herself.

Mainland Bangladesh is also highly exposed to the risk of climate disasters. Located on a river delta, the country has always been vulnerable to cyclones, monsoonal storms and flooding.

Now, however, large stretches of its coastline and many of its islands are directly threatened by rising sea levels.

Bangladesh is host to a large refugee population, including nearly 1 million Rohingya who live in precarious hillside camps outside Cox’s Bazar. Many of these camps were recently destroyed by fires.

Last July, a monsoonal downpour caused catastrophic mudslides and forced the urgent relocation of thousands of refugee families.

The refugees, themselves, can pose a threat to the local environment, as Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s Special Advisor on Climate Action explains:

A boy runs through muddy water at Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh. @UNHCR/ Paula Bronstein

“When food, water, and wood are already limited, a large group of refugees arriving in a host community can cause competition over resources, which can risk turning into conflict.”

 

Rohingya refugees collect their new gas stoves and LPG refills at Kutupalong Refugee Settlement. @UNHCR/ Roger Arnold

Conflict is also part of this cycle of disaster and displacement. Extreme weather events overlap with conflict in many parts of the world, adding to the hardships of those already fleeing from violence.

Severe droughts In the Sahel and the Horn of Africa have not only contributed to violence and refugee flows, but have placed huge stress on the resources of host communities – making UNHCR refugee relief operations all the more complex.

“Climate change is already having a huge impact on our work.”

“As well as the urgent needs created by sudden-onset disasters like hurricanes and floods, we are concerned about the ‘slow creep’ impact of disasters like droughts, receding lakes and rising sea levels that are becoming multipliers for conflict and displacement, both internally and across border,” Andrew explained.

UNHCR is taking urgent steps to address these pressures and prevent the local tensions they can cause by building on the long-term climate resilience of refugee settlements and providing sustainable livelihood opportunities that benefit both the refugee and host communities.

UNHCR is also installing renewable technologies and solar street lighting in established refugee communities. This makes them safer, allowing businesses to function and children to study at night.

Providing camps with sustainable, clean-burning fuels is another priority. Many refugee families rely on firewood and charcoal to cook and stay warm. This can have a devastating impact on surrounding woodlands and lead to conflict as host communities see their livelihoods and resources at risk.

By introducing fuel-efficient stoves and clean-burning biogas, UNHCR is reducing firewood consumption in camps by up to 93 per cent.

UNHCR supports reforestation projects and agro-forestry businesses that are protecting the environment, providing livelihoods and contributing meaningfully to the local economy.

Since 2017, some 50,000 trees have been planted at a camp for Nigerian refugees in the far north-east corner of Cameroon. The Make Minawao Green Again project aims to reverse deforestation both in the camp and surrounding villages.  

“When we came here, we found it was just like a desert,” says Lucas Isaac, refugee representative at Minawao. “There were no trees.”

“Now you can see that everywhere is green and this brings very good appreciation from the refugees – because without a green environment, even the air we breathe is not that good.”

These ‘green camp’ strategies are enhancing refugee facilities and improving both the people’s lives and their environments. They are an essential part of UNHCR’s response to climate change and will be critical to the viability of refugee settlements in the future.

 

 

 

 

A Somali refugee woman collects firewood near the Prosopis Firewood Processing and Charcoal Briquette Production Scheme centre in Melkadida Camp, Ethiopia. @UNHCR/ Georgina Goodwin

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