Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
After three months of extreme violence in Syria’s northwest, marked by hits on hospitals, water facilities, and schools, this week may have seen the deadliest day for civilians since the fragile ceasefire in and around Idlib province began to unravel in April. On Monday, at least 60 people were killed and 100 injured – many of them critically – in a series of airstrikes, including one on a market in the city of Ma’arat al-Nu’man. The UN said the death toll of 39 from that attack, which includes five children, is likely to rise as more bodies are discovered. In total, at least 400 civilians have been confirmed dead since the end of April, and 440,000 have been forced into flight. Some people, the UN reports, have been displaced five or 10 times in Syria’s more than eight-year war and, with camps in the region overcrowded, many are sleeping in the open air. Syria may not be making the headlines like it used to, but there are few signs things won’t get worse before they get better.
Between 100 and 150 people are missing and feared drowned after a Thursday shipwreck off the coast of Libya, believed to be the deadliest migrant disaster on the Mediterranean Sea this year. Another 150 people were reportedly rescued by fishermen and returned to the country by the Libyan Coast Guard. The UN’s migration agency, IOM, said 84 were taken to Tajoura, the migrant detention centre in Tripoli where at least 53 people were killed by an airstrike earlier this month. The survivors of that attack were allowed to leave but, as we reported, Tajoura is already filling back up again. Before this week’s deaths at sea, Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Mediterranée announced they were restarting their search-and-rescue mission at the end of July; 14 EU countries agreed “in principle” to a plan to allow refugees to disembark in European ports and be relocated in the continent; and Italy’s government, which did not attend the EU talks, won a confidence vote over new measures to crack down even harder on NGO rescue ships that enter Italian waters.
Boko Haram launched its war against the Nigerian state a decade ago. The conflict has raged across the northeast and into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. It has displaced millions, triggered a famine, deposed a president, and claimed tens of thousands of lives – a level of violence that has made Boko Haram one of the world’s deadliest insurgent movements. The group confirmed its global jihadist credentials when it swore allegiance to so-called Islamic State, but then split in 2016. The breakaway faction, recognised by IS and known as ISWAP, has entrenched itself in the Lake Chad basin region, where it is building a proto-state. Its rival, led by Abubakar Shekau, responsible for the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, is largely confined to territory in the Sambisa Forest and the border with Cameroon, but remains dangerous. For more, check out a short selection of our coverage marking 10 years of war here; our Boko Haram in-depth here; and broader reporting on violent extremism in the Sahel here.
A volatile month for the NGO Swedish Committee for Afghanistan shows the dangers local health workers face in Afghanistan’ s conflict. Early in July, Afghan security forces stormed an SCA-run clinic in Wardak province and allegedly “executed” at least four people, including two health workers. The Taliban swiftly ordered SCA to close 42 health facilities across the province. Then it reversed the decision only days later. What gives? The Taliban has influence in large parts of Wardak, and SCA is one of the few international NGOs trying to boost its presence in both government and insurgent areas. That means balancing demands and distrust from both Taliban and Afghan security forces. After the clinic was first raided, the Taliban accused SCA of not condemning the attack – the Taliban claims ample civilian casualties caused by government and US security forces are often downplayed. SCA did in fact denounce the original attack. And this week, for good measure, it held a press conference and did it again.
The amount of cash used as humanitarian aid continues to grow, according to this fact sheet from Development Initiatives, teasing the NGO’s Global Humanitarian Assistance Report in September. The international aid community is fond of a thematic division of labour (“we do children, you do food”). No-strings-attached cash (let people spend how they choose) is a threat to the relevance of single-issue aid agencies. But what if people aren’t getting enough food, or children aren’t being looked after? A “Grand Bargain” working group on cash has tried to square this circle with new suggestions on monitoring the impact of cash. Another factor is targeting: how do cash transfer systems make sure they catch the most needy? A new evaluation of the largest refugee cash aid project finds that 23 percent of applicants were rejected as ineligible.
Disasters don’t discriminate, but humans do. When Cyclone Fani hit India’s Odisha State in early May, some Dalits – shunned in India’s banned caste system – were refused entry into storm shelters. Instead, the families were “forced to take refuge only under a tarpaulin put over a tree bent by the cyclone”, according to Shivani Rana, emergencies programme officer with Christian Aid. In an article posted this week, the NGO explores the issue of marginalisation in disaster preparedness. Another example: most Dalit and indigenous communities in Kerala didn’t receive any early warning during last year’s floods in Kerala state. Christian Aid says these groups are frequently ignored in humanitarian responses, by both local governments and the international aid system. Addressing this exclusion is tough, especially when the communities aren’t included in decision-making.
EAST AFRICA: More than 15 million people are in need of drought assistance in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. The lessons are that early actioncan reduce the severity of disasters, but Oxfam says the international aid effort is just over a third funded. Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organisation is warning of a locust outbreak threatening farmers in parts of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen over the next three months.
EBOLA:The World Bank is contributing another $300 million to fight Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo – an outbreak that has killed more than 1,750 people. The money adds to the $100 million it allocated after the outbreak was declared last August.
MEKONG DROUGHT: Southeast Asian countries dependent on the Mekong River are reporting intense drought and record-low water levels in the middle of the region’s monsoon season. Researchers say it’s exacerbated by China’s vast network of mega-dams upstream. Thailand is in the middle of a decade-worst drought; water levels in Laos (which is also damming the Mekong) are lower than one metre; and Vietnam is expecting drought through August.
OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES:Israeli forces began demolishing Palestinian residential buildings in East Jerusalem on 22 July. Rights watchdogs and UN officials said the demolitions were a violation of international humanitarian law and could pave the way for similar moves on land that falls under the civil control of the Palestinian Authority.
SOUTH ASIA: Monsoon flooding in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Nepal have killed more than 600 people this month as the region faces extreme (and continuing) rainfall, according to a UN tally. More than 700,000 have also been displaced, though many have also returned home as waters recede.
In the more than 16 years since a US-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein, Iraq has endured cycles of sectarian and extremist violence. The latest chapter reached a bloody climax two years ago this month when so-called Islamic State were driven from their Mosul stronghold. It was in this northern Iraqi city that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new “caliphate” in mid-2014. In our weekend read, Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod weighs up what progress has been made since the conflict ended. Unfortunately, for large segments of the Iraqi population – including 300,000 people displaced by the violence in and around Mosul and still unable to return to their homes – the answer is not much. Some 1.6 million Iraqis remain displaced overall, and pressure is building on the government to deliver on basic services. This briefing begins a series of TNH reports on Iraq’s post-war problems, from Basra in the south to Erbil in the north. Look out for the first piece next week, on the mental health crisis facing minority Yazidis in Sinjar.
This upcoming exhibition by award-winning photographer Vincent Tremeau features 30 girls in nine humanitarian crisis countries showing what they want to be when they grow up. The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, will launch the exhibition – which aims to highlight how girls are affected by conflict and displacement and why education is so critical – on Monday, 29th July at the UN headquarters in New York as part of World Humanitarian Day. The 2019 campaign honours women humanitarians around the world. Look out for the #womenhumanitarians hashtag.
(TOP PHOTO: Smoke billows above buildings in Syria's Idlib province on 19 July 2019.)
Floodwaters in Bangladesh have broken through riverbanks, submerged villages, and displaced more than 280,000 people over the last week. Photojournalist Zakir Hossain Chowdhury has been documenting the damage in hard-hit Kurigram District in northern Bangladesh, where heavy rains and water flowing from India’s Assam State have inundated entire villages.
Ahmed Mijan, a rural healthcare worker, said most of the people displaced in the area have few options as they wait for help.
“People are suffering a lot, especially pregnant and older women,” he said. “There is not enough medical support for them.”
Aid groups say more than 100,000 hectares of cropland have been damaged in Bangladesh alone; the contamination of water sources and crowded conditions for evacuees can also increase the spread of water-borne diseases.
In South Asia, long-term food insecurity and the immediate risk of disease are becoming pressing concerns after two weeks of heavy monsoon-season flooding, aid groups warned.
The UN said floods and landslides killed at least 90 people in Nepal, and some 12,000 households are displaced. Early estimates suggest about 50,000 water sources like tube wells may be contaminated. The UN said water-testing, water purification, and temporary latrines are among the priorities.
The Assam-based NGO, North-East Affected Area Development Society, said health risks are growing: local media reported that more than 100 people have died of Japanese encephalitis, though the outbreak, which had previously hit Bihar, started before the recent floods.
Floods are common during the June-October monsoon season in this part of South Asia, but the impacts on communities – millions are already affected and still at risk – are much larger than in most years, aid groups said.
“The floods this year are extreme, having affected millions of people in less than a fortnight,” said Kazi Amdadul Hoque, who works with Friendship NGO, a Bangladeshi aid organisation that operates in river and coastal areas of the country.
There could be further problems on the horizon: The UN said that heavy rainfall forecast for August could bring more floods and landslides to the region.
(TOP PHOTO: Ratna Begum holds on to a roof while standing in her submerged yard in flooded Kurigram District in northern Bangladesh.)
Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
Escalating the threat level of the latest Ebola outbreak may shake loose funding the World Health Organisation says has been lagging. After a first case in the major city of Goma, near the Rwandan border, the WHO this week declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or “PHEIC”. Despite receiving only $44 million of the $98 million needed for the response, WHO Director-General Tedros Adranom Ghebreyesus said the measure wasn’t enacted to boost funds. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said a new operations budget “would be in excess of $233 million”. Pledging an additional $63 million, Rory Stewart, the UK’s secretary of state for international development, has urged francophone countries to contribute more. More than 1,650 people have died over the past year in what is now the second deadliest outbreak ever. Conflict and targeted attacks on the response have thwarted containment efforts, with two more Ebola workers killed last week.
The Ethiopian government has sidestepped a fresh challenge from its restive regions. Sidama activists had announced they would unilaterally declare a new regional state in the south of the country on Thursday. A potentially bloody confrontation was avoided when activists accepted a last-minute offer from the government to hold a referendum within five months. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s promise of wide-ranging reforms has emboldened minorities, and Ethiopia has been rocked by ethnic conflicts. A new report argues that the road to democracy requires security and a strong state, alongside an opening of political space under the guidance of a reformed ruling party. “Control needs to be reasserted in the face of contending ethnopolitical forces,” it says, calling for a radical re-organisation of the ruling party (itself being pulled apart by contending ethnic constituencies) to achieve internal agreement on a new democratic vision. See our Ethiopian coverage here.
It has been a tough year for anti-polio efforts in Pakistan: cases are rising, vaccinators have been shot and killed, and a nationwide round of vaccinations was suspended. This week, health authorities confirmed 45 polio cases in 2019, after recording 12 all of last year. While incendiary rumours and vaccine refusals are often blamed, there’s also mounting scrutiny of Pakistan’s anti-polio efforts. This month, a top polio official acknowledged that vaccination data – the country’s polio eradication programme claimed 99 percent coverage – was essentially false. In some cases, vaccination teams allowed sceptical parents to falsely claim their children had been vaccinated instead of reporting the refusals, which would have triggered police action. “Polio eradication drives had been misreporting their own effectiveness,” Babar Atta, a political appointee on polio eradication, wrote in an opinion piece in Dawn, a national newspaper. Atta said the programme will step up efforts to counter community mistrust. An October report by the Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative offered a stark assessment: “The Pakistan Polio Programme is fooling itself into thinking that it has made any progress at all”.
Officials have begun taking down Arabic-language shop signs in parts of Istanbul, to comply with countrywide regulations that require 75 percent of the writing on signs in Turkey be in Turkish. Signs have also been removed in Kilis, a city near the Syrian border that has a large Syrian refugee population. Politicians from various parties have been ramping up the pressure on Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees to return home, and there are inter-communal tensions too. Late last month, several Syrian-owned businesses in Istanbul were ransacked, reportedly after a false rumour spread on social media that a Syrian man had sexually assaulted a minor. Despite all this, and a border that is closed to refugees, Syrians with no place else to go are still trying to flee the escalating violence in and around the northwest province of Idlib by crossing over a heavily guarded fence into Turkey.
Foreign NGOs should be limited to "monitoring and technical assistance instead of direct operation", according to a convention of grassroots organisations in Bangladesh. A gathering of about 700 local NGOs and civil society organisations made the call for international aid agencies to be curbed at a 6 July "national convention". The event also released a "Charter of Expectations" based on a series of nationwide consultations. The local organisations say the government, foreign donor countries, UN agencies, and INGOs could and should rely more on local competence. The group also committed to a "Charter of Accountability", covering financial disclosure and transparency as well as the inclusion of the affected communities in programme decision-making. Bangladeshi NGOs have been campaigning to play a bigger role in operations to support Rohingya refugees. A recent study found that discussions about "localisation" were characterised by "highly polarised positions – often based on organisational rather than humanitarian interests".
Sexual violence against female humanitarian workers occurred in eight percent of violent attacks last year, according to a new report from Humanitarian Outcomes. But the number of reported incidents – just 21 since 1997 – suggests that both victims and organisations may be vastly under-reporting the problem. Last year was one of the worst on record, with 399 aid workers affected by violent attacks: 126 were killed, 143 wounded, and 130 kidnapped. South Sudan, where a group of female aid workers were raped in 2016, continues to be one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers, along with Syria.
AFGHANISTAN: Afghan refugees who returned home tended to be worse off financially than refugees who stayed behind in Pakistan, according to new research from the World Bank and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants return to Afghanistan each year, but there are few jobs available and little help to reintegrate.
MYANMAR: Floods caused by torrential rains have uprooted more than 9,500 people in Rakhine State, including thousands previously displaced by clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group. Displaced people in multiple camps told The Irrawaddy newspaper they had received no aid. The government has shut down mobile internet in eight Rakhine townships, adding to already strict limits on humanitarian access.
SUDAN: The military and pro-democracy movement have signed a power-sharing deal after months of confrontation. But analyst Rashid Abdi points out that, faced with a repressive military, the opposition had little option but to agree to a deal that puts the army in charge for most of a three-year transition. “We should be under no illusions, 21 months is a long time and there is a lot of fear that the military will use this period to eviscerate the opposition and further consolidate power,” he notes.
SYRIA: Human Rights Watch says the Syrian government is freezing or seizing the assets of entire families of people it accuses of being terrorists, in an expansion of the country’s anti-terrorism laws that amounts to collective punishment. People affected by the law told HRW the government had taken their businesses, homes, and other property.
UNITED STATES: According to a report in Politico, President Donald Trump’s administration is considering reducing the number of refugee admissions to fewer than 10,000 next year, perhaps even zero. Any future move would come on top of existing cuts in 2018 and 2019.
With the World Food Programme halting certain aid deliveries recently in the Yemeni capital over the use – or not, in this case – of biometrics, we decided to put the issue in the spotlight this week. The impasse in Yemen centres on the WFP seeking to use biometrics to register aid recipients to counter the diversion of supplies, allegedly by local officials aligned to the Houthi rebels. The Houthis have refused to accept the WFP’s proposals, saying it is illegal for the UN to control the data. The question of who should be allowed access to recipients’ data is one of six we put to two experts on biometrics with experience in humanitarian settings. Their responses, in a head-to-head format, provide different perspectives on many of the complexities at play in this tricky and pressing conundrum for the sector. Oh, and quickly back to Yemen: WFP Executive Director David Beasley told the UN Security Council on Thursday that while the WFP and the Houthis now had an “agreement in principle” no deal had yet been signed to restart assistance in Sana’a.
A malnourished person isn't always skinny – being too heavy is also counted as malnourishment, and it's on the rise, worldwide. Four million deaths and $2 trillion in losses, as well as a range of other health problems, stem from rising numbers of adults and children who are classified as overweight or obese. Some 38.9 percent of adults are overweight, and 13.2 percent obese, according to an annual UN report on food and nutrition. The same report estimates that 10.8 percent of the world is undernourished. Overall, there are about three billion overweight people compared to some 820 million undernourished people.
(TOP PHOTO: Residents of a ward in Kanungu district, Uganda attend a meeting on dangers and prevention of Ebola.)
Monsoon floods and landslides sweeping through large swathes of South Asia have killed dozens of people and left hundreds of thousands displaced, stranded, or in need of basic aid with more heavy rains expected in the coming days.
Aid organisations are warning of growing humanitarian needs in parts of the region. Tirtha Prasad Saikia, joint director for the North-East Affected Area Development Society, or NEADS, a local NGO in India’s northeastern state of Assam, said his organisation’s assessment teams are seeing widespread damage to shelters, crops, and livestock, along with an urgent need for basics like food, drinking water, and sanitation.
“People are facing a serious crisis,” he told The New Humanitarian. “Government infrastructure like hospitals and schools are under water. It will take many days or many months to get it back to normal.”
In Assam the rains caused the Brahmaputra River to burst its banks, flooding more than 3,000 villages as of Sunday. State authorities say the floods have killed at least four people, and affected a total of 2.6 million. Disaster management officials have set up dozens of relief camps and distribution centres.
Floodwaters are also seeping downstream into Bangladesh, which is an enormous delta for the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers. The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society said there is “massive” flooding in northern and northeastern Bangladesh.
And hilly southern districts like Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar – together home to nearly one million Rohingya refugees – are threatened by flash floods and landslides. At least 270,000 people in Bangladesh are already impacted and many communities have been “marooned” by the rising waters, humanitarian groups say.
A Red Crescent report tracking the humanitarian response in Bangladesh stated: “The current flood situation is likely to worsen in the coming days, as all major rivers in the affected districts are flowing above the danger mark with a rising trend.”
In Nepal, at least 65 people are dead and dozens more are missing, officials reported. More than 10,000 households have been displaced as heavy rainfall drenched parts of the country beginning Friday.
Elsewhere in India, at least 15 people are dead in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states, according to the Euopean Union’s humanitarian arm, ECHO. Both states straddle Nepal’s southern border.
Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and parts of China and northern India are linked in a massive interconnected river basin, which sees excess water in higher-altitude regions flow downstream through heavily populated low-lying areas.
Intense rains are common during this part of South Asia’s monsoon season, which typically lasts from June through October. During the 2017 monsoon, weeks of flooding affected 40 million and killed 1,200 people in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Researchers say climate change made extreme rains in some parts of the region twice as likely in 2017.
This year’s floods haven’t reached 2017’s emergency levels. But there are pockets of concern in specific areas. In the Rohingya camps of southern Bangladesh, floods and landslides have displaced more than 5,000 people from their tent homes and affected roughly 5 percent of the settlements. UN agencies say it’s the most severe weather the camps have seen since more than 700,000 Rohingya were driven out of Myanmar beginning in August 2017.
“Many new villages that had not experienced floods for the last 30 years, they are now experiencing floods.”
In Assam, the intensity of this year’s floods is the worst in decades, said NEADS’ Saikia. Monsoon floods have become noticeably more damaging over the last five to eight years, he said – an outcome he blames on deforestation and mining in uphill areas, a failure to repair eroding riverbanks, and the changing climate.
“The character of floods is changing. The rivers are causing more damage to the people,” he said. “Many new villages that had not experienced floods for the last 30 years, they are now experiencing floods.”
(TOP PHOTO: An Indian woman searches her belongings near the debris of her house following floodwaters in Kasuarbori village, in India's northeastern state of Assam, on 13 July 2019.)
Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
Afghan special forces “executed” four civilians, including at least two NGO workers, in a nighttime raid on a health clinic in Wardak Province on 8 July, Human Rights Watch says. The NGO that runs the clinic, Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, called it a “shocking violation against international humanitarian law”. The NGO’s director said security forces killed one person accompanying a patient before shooting three others, including two SCA employees. SCA said the clinic is funded by the Afghan government. Humanitarian groups frequently work in both government-controlled areas as well as insurgent territory, and local health workers say they face threats from both sides, especially in contested zones. The UN says 77 aid workers have been killed, injured, or abducted this year in Afghanistan – already eclipsing last year’s total of 76. Pro-government and international military forces have killed more civilians than the Taliban and other insurgents combined in 2019, according to the UN.
The Boko Haram splinter group, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), is helping fishing communities in the Lake Chad region circumvent a trading ban imposed by the Nigerian military, and in doing so is cementing its influence in the area. The military’s ban is a heavy-handed attempt to deny ISWAP profits from the multi-million dollar dried fish business. But the impact has been to impoverish the local community, stoking resentment against the government – especially as elements within the Nigerian military are alleged to be engaged in the trade themselves. The Institute for Security Studies notes that ISWAP has secured alternative routes through Cameroon and back into Nigeria to avoid the embargo – “endearing itself to the locals and boosting its revenues.” Look out for our upcoming report on ISWAP and the proto-state it is building in the Lake Chad basin.
Inequality in West Africa is “at crisis levels” says Oxfam. A clear majority of the region’s citizens are denied “the most essential elements of a dignified life” – access to quality education, healthcare and decent work. Inequality is exacerbated by government underfunding of social services and the agricultural sector while at the same time under-taxing corporations and the wealthy, and failing to clamp down on tax evasion, tax avoidance and corruption – with illicit financial flows from Africa to the West alone worth more than $50 billion. The best performing countries on Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality Indexare Cape Verde and Mauritania, with Sierra Leone and Nigeria at the bottom. Nigeria is home to the continent’s richest men but globally has the highest number of people living in poverty.
More details have emerged about the 3 July airstrike on a migrant detention centre in the Libyan capital that killed more than 50 people, including six children. A New York Times investigation, which includes harrowing security footage from inside the Tripoli building, shows that Tajoura, which housed more than 600 migrants and refugees, was less than 90 metres from a militia weapons depot. The air raid first hit the weapons cache, leading some people to flee the centre (despite reported shooting by guards). Eleven minutes later, Tajoura itself was hit. Not everyone was immediately evacuated from the centre and Tajoura was only finally closed on 10 July, the UN said. Survivors who are not in hospital have been moved to another facility, which it called “badly overcrowded”.
Researchers with NASA, the US space agency, are relying on citizen scientists to learn more about a decidedly terrestrial problem: global landslide risk. Over the last year, citizen scientists supplied information on 162 previously-undetected landslides in 37 countries. NASA says the collaboration, detailed this month in the journal PLOS ONE, will “immensely improve” its global landslide prediction model. Most of NASA’s landslide info comes from English-language news reports, which tend to focus on headline-grabbing disasters while other landslides go unrecorded. Why does it matter? This model currently helps scientists anticipate rain-triggered landslide threats around the world every 30 minutes. Landslides kill thousands of people each year, and the majority happen in Asia during monsoon seasons. In Bangladesh, where the monsoon began in June, the Rohingya refugee camps are on high alert (thousands have already been displaced), as are the nearby hill tract districts, where once-rare landslide casualties are becoming increasingly common.
SUDAN:Sudan’s ruling military council says it foiled an attempted coup on Thursday night. The announcement came as the military and pro-democracy movement were working on a power-sharing deal. Meanwhile, the lifting of an internet ban has allowed the circulation of cellphone clips from the military’s bloody crackdown on civilian activists on 3 June. The BBC has pieced together some of the disturbing footage.
KASHMIR:India and Pakistan have done little to curb rights abuses in disputed Kashmir, the UN’s human rights office warned in a report this week. Local rights groups in Indian-administered Kashmir say civilian deaths are at a 10-year high, and this year threatens to surpass the last.
YEMEN PULLOUT:The United Arab Emirates, which along with Saudi Arabia leads a coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, is withdrawing most of its troops from the country. The UAE led an advance towards the port city of Hodeidah before a ceasefire agreement last December, but has already pulled most of its soldiers and weapons from the strategic area.
CHEMICAL WEAPONS:The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has reportedly established a new team to investigate and assign responsibility for nine alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria. In late 2017, Russia vetoed a resolution to continue the work of a joint UN-OPCW body that had the job of determining who had been using the banned agents.
HEALTHCARE UNDER ATTACK:Two hospitals, a healthcare centre, and an ambulance facility in northwestern Syria were hit by airstrikes or shelling on Wednesday, according to medical aid groups that work in the area. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) said six civilians who lived near the ambulance facility in Jisr al-Shughour were killed. Five staffers were injured.
SEXUAL ABUSE:Peter Dalglish, 62, a former aid worker, was sentenced to nine years in prison for sexually abusing two boys aged 11 and 14 in Nepal. The Canadian co-founded the NGO Street Kids International. He had also worked for UN Habitat in Afghanistan, and for the UN in Liberia. His lawyer is reported as saying Dalglish is protesting his innocence and the prosecution case was flawed.
MALWARE:A UK charity was hit by a ransomware attack in one of the first public cases of its kind to affect a nonprofit. First aid group St John's Ambulance announced that it resolved the issue quickly without payment or loss of data. Ransomware is a virus that locks up a system until an anonymous payment is made (usually in bitcoin) and is a growing cyber security threat.
Nine thousand Venezuelans arrived in Peru on a single day in June, just before Lima’s new immigration rules came into force. Until 15 June, Venezuelans fleeing economic collapse and authoritarian government at home could live and work freely in Peru, with temporary residence permits that were renewable annually. But that laissez-faire policy has come to an end. Now Peru (which has a backlog of 240,000 asylum applications) insists on would-be arrivals applying for a “humanitarian visa”. But that requires a valid passport and evidence of a clean criminal record – both of which can be expensive and difficult for Venezuelans to secure. Analysts say the measure will drive migrants into the informal employment sector, increasing the risk of worker exploitation.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, who helped his country weather a year of calamity as spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster management agency, died this week from lung cancer. He was 49. Sutopo was frequently in the news last year through a string of disasters, including earthquakes that hit the island of Lombok, volcano threats in Bali and Sumatra, and the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Central Sulawesi in September, killing more than 4,000 people. In one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, Sutopo became a popular public figure who used social media to shoot down internet hoaxes, spread disaster awareness tips, and even critique his own country’s preparedness systems. His popular Twitter missives, occasionally written from a hospital bed, also poked fun at his own predicament. “Life isn’t determined by how long we live,” he told the Guardian last year, “but how useful we are to other people.”
(TOP PHOTO: Displaced people and locals in Lake Chad area prepare to go fishing.)
Remember those 10 crises and trends to watch in 2019 we presented back in January? The issues are rapidly evolving, but we’ve been keeping watch.
From new trends in aid policy and climate displacement to political transitions in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, our reporting has examined the shifting terrain of humanitarian needs and response.
Here’s what has changed through the year, what we’re paying special attention to, and how it may affect the lives and livelihoods of people on the ground.
Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
Describing interethnic fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northeast as "attempted genocide," President Felix Tshisekedi has announced the launch of a military crackdown on the armed groups responsible for the deaths of at least 160 civilians and the displacement of tens of thousands since 10 June. Speaking at the end of a visit to Ituri Province, Tshisekedi said he believed the violence there between militiasconnected to Lendu farmers and Hema herders was a “plot” to destabilise the central government, and ordered the army to “conduct large-scale operations”. He said the offensive would begin in the worst-affected Ituri districts of Djugu and Mahagi, and extend to South Kivu Province to put a "definite end" to the dozens of rebel groups active in eastern Congo. The region is not only home to multiple insurgencies but is also the centre of the country’s Ebola epidemic. See our latest Ebola briefing here, and look for our coming photo essay on the Ituri violence.
Condemnations have poured in since an airstrike hit a migrant detention centre in the Libyan capital Wednesday morning, killing at least 53 people by the latest count, including six children, and injuring 130. While the incident was shocking, it should not necessarily have come as a surprise: Humanitarians have been warning for months of the grave danger faced by the thousands of people detained near the conflict zones in the three-month battle for Tripoli. Reports have emerged that Libyan guards shot at people fleeing the strike, which may have been two hits rather than one. The head of the UN’s mission in Libya was among several who said the attack could constitute a war crime. A statement from the Secretary-General’s office called for an independent investigation into the incident, saying the UN “had provided exact coordinates of the detention centre to the parties” fighting in Tripoli. The Security Council, however, failed to agree on a text denouncing the attack. In case you missed it, here’s a collection of our reporting on what it’s like for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Libya, and how it got this bad in the first place.
Back in January, we pointed to warnings about highly contagious African swine fever, which is harmless to humans but has a near 100 percent fatality rate for pigs. This week, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned the disease has rapidly spread from China to parts of Southeast Asia, threatening food security and livelihoods. Outbreaks have now been reported across China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and even North Korea (which, you may have heard, is already in a food crisis). The FAO says swine fever is “a serious threat,” as pig meat is a major source of animal protein for many in the region. Price hikes for other types of meat have already been reported, and the FAO says poorer households that rely on pork as a main protein source are likely to feel the most squeezed as food security worsens.
Synthetic opioid use is booming worldwide, with a particular rise in the use of tramadol in Africa, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime stated in its annual report released this week. Describing the spread of tramadol as a “crisis”, the UNODC said the prescription painkiller is illicitly manufactured in South Asia and trafficked to Africa, as well as to parts of the Middle East. In Nigeria, the government has mistakenly linked tramadol misuse to the insurgency in the northeast, claiming the jihadist group Boko Haram drugs its fighters. Tramadol has been available in the region’s rural areas for years, taken by farmers and manual labourers to increase their productivity. But Boko Haram is known to execute tramadol dealers in the areas it controls. In the rest of Nigeria, the government’s under-funded rehabilitation centres are struggling to cope with the rising numbers of tramadol and codeine addicts looking for treatment.
Take a look at NASA’s before-and-after satellite images over Puzhal Lake – the main reservoir for Chennai in India’s Tamil Nadu state. They show the extent of water shortages hitting the parched city right now. Parts of India have seen potentially life-changing drought, dozens of people have died in heat waves, and the start of monsoon season was weeks late – but these aren’t the only reasons why Chennai is running dry. This week, researchers at the World Resources Institute pose a pertinent question in podcast format: How exactly does a flood-prone city run out of water? It’s not just a matter of rainfall shortages, a WRI analyst suggests, but “excessive demand, erratic supply, and the lack of a plan”. The podcast further explores why this is a concern elsewhere, and how better planning and data can begin to address the crisis.
JAPAN: More than one million people in southwestern Japan were ordered to evacuate after heavy rains triggered flood and landslide warnings. Some areas have reportedly received a month’s worth of rainfall in a single day.
LEBANON: Lebanese troops began demolishing 20 homes in a settlement of Syrian refugees this week, after the government said that shelters built with anything other than wood and plastic sheeting violated rules against building “semi-permanent” structures in informal camps. Many refugees took down their own concrete walls before the army’s arrival. NGOs estimate that as many as 15,000 people could be impacted if the demolitions continue.
PAKISTAN: At least 876 people, more than 700 of them children, have tested positive for HIV in Pakistan’s Larkana district, the World Health Organisation said this week. Health experts believe poor infection control and the re-use of needles at blood banks and during medical procedures could be causes. But the WHO said further investigation is needed to determine whether the HIV outbreak is “acute and isolated” or “the tip of the iceberg of a larger epidemic”.
SOUTH SUDAN: Despite a ceasefire, violence has intensifiedin the Central Equatoria region with civilians "deliberately and brutally targeted", according to the UN peacekeeping mission. Mission officials said at least 104 people were killed in 30 attacks on villages between September 2018 to April 2019. See our reporting on the fragile ceasefire here.
US-MEXICO:A US inspector general’s report found “dangerous overcrowding” at migrant detention facilities in southern Texas, with 51 female migrants held in a cell designed for 40 men, and 71 men in a cell built for 41 women. Others were held in standing-room only conditions, the report stated.
We may have been guilty of focussing lately on Ebola over other issues of concern in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not anymore. This week Olivia Acland reported from Goma on the multiple strands of humanitarian crisis blighting eastern Congo. The situation is particularly bad in Ituri province, where the World Food Programme has just tripled, to 300,000, the number of people it aims to support through food and cash aid as renewed conflict continues to drive people from their homes. Attacks involving dozens of armed groups are also displacing civilians in South Kivu and North Kivu provinces. All of this makes trying to treat deadly measles and cholera outbreaks even harder. It’s all connected to Ebola, too. Part of the distrust that has hampered the response to the world’s second deadliest outbreak of the virus is down to resentment about apathy over these longer-term problems. It’s a quick read, perfect for a busy weekend.
A lawsuit will test the rules behind $110 billion of US charitable pooled funds run on behalf of private donors. A couple is taking Fidelity Charitable to court, alleging their $100 million donation was mismanaged. Unlike other nonprofit ventures, contributions to Donor-Advised Funds (DAFs) are allowed to lie idle until the donor decides who to give the donations to. This leads to allegations that the funds are a tax break where wealth can be stashed, with limited impact on good causes. Most DAF donations ($19 billion in 2017) go to US non-profits, but can be spent abroad via US intermediaries. Assets of DAFs swelled from $29.3 billion in 2009 to $110 billion in 2017. DAF management firms like Fidelity Charitable meanwhile may earn management fees on holdings and a percentage from donations.
(TOP PHOTO: UN peacekeepers and government soldiers on an exploratory mission in Ituri province, Democratic Republic of Congo. 15 May 2019.)
The rapid evacuation of more than one million people saved countless lives when Cyclone Fani pummelled India’s eastern coastline in early May. But a relatively low death toll hides extensive damage to infrastructure and livelihoods – underscoring the need to build more resilient homes and communities that can withstand future storms.
Two months after Fani made landfall in Odisha State, tens of thousands of fishing and farming families in the worst-affected areas are still waiting for help to rebuild, and some are leaving their damaged nets and fields behind in search of work.
In hard-hit coastal Puri district, Kailash Biswal’s home collapsed and his small rice paddy and fish pond were ruined by flooding. The government has announced compensation for the losses, but it won’t be enough to rebuild, he said.
“It will be practically difficult to maintain the family for the whole year,” he said.
Biswal said he and his two brothers are planning to leave home to search for work.
There are similar stories throughout Puri and two adjoining districts that surround Chilika Lake, a brackish water lagoon that is the lifeblood for some 175,000 fishing families here.
Cyclone Fani lashed the area with wind speeds that topped 200 kilometres per hour. The storm killed dozens in India and neighbouring Bangladesh, but the majority of the deaths were in Odisha, where 64 people died mainly due to collapsed buildings and trees caused by high winds and heavy rainfall.
Half a million homes were damaged in Odisha and scenes of destruction are still evident today in Puri district, where communities depend on fisheries and farms. Most homes here are made from mud and brick with bamboo and straw roofs – not sturdy enough to withstand a storm. Downed electricity lines and water supplies haven’t been fully restored, leaving thousands of households without power or drinking water for weeks. Many are still living off short-term humanitarian relief.
Jhadu Behera, president of a fishing cooperative on the eastern side of Chilika, said 35 villages in his area are severely affected, and the household breadwinners in most of these villages are looking to migrate.
He said some fishermen are already leaving, and without more immediate help to restore their livelihoods, many more will be forced to follow.
“They will migrate to other states in search of jobs,” he said.
Fishermen often migrate inland to find work as labourers during the lean season. But local community groups say this outflow has become more prevalent in recent years as catches on the lake dwindle due to the siltation of the water, the expanding commercial prawn aquaculture industry, and the rapid warming of lake temperatures caused by climate change.
Climate change is also expected to make cyclones like Fani more intense and more unpredictable, and the Bay of Bengal on which Odisha sits has produced some of the world’s deadliest.
“Frequent cyclonic storms have snatched our livelihoods,” said Fagu Behera, the leader of a local fishing association.
After Cyclone Fani, state officials were lauded for quickly evacuating more than one million people into hundreds of cyclone shelters, which have proliferated since a 1999 storm killed an estimated 10,000 people.
But disaster risk experts say the longer-term impacts still unfolding two months after Fani highlight the importance of making communities more prepared to withstand damages, in addition to saving lives.
“The next step is for the state to build capacity to be able to minimise the loss of assets and livelihood,” said Deepak Singh, a disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank, which has worked with Odisha and other states on preparedness and infrastructure projects.
“Coastal housing in Odisha is still quite vulnerable to cyclones and heavy rains. Similarly, the power infrastructure is completely overground, leaving it extremely exposed during natural disasters.”
Since the 1999 cyclone, Odisha has set up hundreds of cyclone shelters, an early warning system, and communication systems to make sure as many people as possible receive those warnings.
But the state also needs to invest in building cyclone-resilient infrastructure along its coast, said Bishnupada Sethi, the commissioner of the state’s Special Relief Organisation, which oversees disaster relief and rescue operations.
“There is still a long way to go to strengthen a resilient society,” Sethi said.
State authorities hope a better understanding of Cyclone Fani’s impacts today will help prepare for the next inevitable disaster. The government, UN agencies, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank are tallying both the physical damages caused by Fani as well as harder-to-measure socio-economic losses, such as the impacts on livelihoods, food security, and health.
In India, governments often concentrate on the physical damage. But adding up the extent of other losses will help authorities better plan for recovery and build more resilient communities, said Monika Nielsen, who heads UNICEF’s field office in Odisha.
Fishing communities around Chilika Lake are mulling their immediate futures.
The government is planning compensation packages of 95,000 rupees or about $1,400 for destroyed homes, and financial aid of about $600 to replace destroyed boats. But the money has yet to be distributed. State authorities say the delays are due to assessing damage in such a large area.
It won’t be enough for Sharat Behera. The 34-year-old heads a family of six, but hasn’t been able to earn a living after Cyclone Fani damaged his boat and net. He estimates his boat is worth the equivalent of $3,500 – far more than what the government’s compensation scheme provides – and he’s still paying off the loan he used to buy it in the first place.
Priyabrat Pradhan, 24, is among those about to leave. After weeks of no income since the storm, he’s decided to leave his nets behind and move across the country to Gujarat State, where he has lined up work in a textile mill.
“We have suffered huge losses,” he said. “We have no option but to go outside the state for jobs.”
(TOP PHOTO: Neighbours help fisherman Sharat Behera overturn a boat stuck in the mud in a canal leading to Chilika Lake. With mounting debt and no income since Cyclone Fani, Behera says he has no choice but to migrate elsewhere to look for work.)
Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
This week saw more death and destruction in Syria’s northwest, along with more warnings: UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council on Tuesday that 32 civilians were reportedly killed and injured by airstrikes and shelling last weekend, and Special Envoy Geir Pedersen said the situation in and around Idlib province is “a potential powder keg of regional escalation”. The UN has scaled back its support for the “deconfliction” system that shares the coordinates of health facilities with Russia and Syria after several listed clinics and hospitals in opposition territory were hit. In a new report on Friday, Human Rights Watch argues that aid projects, in particular reconstruction, should avoid being manipulated by the government and becoming complicit in rights abuses. However, its proposed measures, including “independent and full needs assessments; maintaining confidentiality of beneficiary lists; and insisting on full, unimpeded and regular access to all areas,” have so far proved impossible to set up.
A government-ordered mobile internet shutdown in Rakhine State could risk lives and make it even harder for humanitarian aid to reach people trapped by conflict, rights groups warn. On 21 June, Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered operators to shut down mobile internet in nine Rakhine and Chin state townships – where the military is battling the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group. The UN says clashes have displaced some 30,000 people this year, and humanitarian access and freedom of movement are severely restricted. Rights monitors and journalists frequently communicate with affected civilians using online messaging apps. Rights watchdogs say the military could use the internet blackout as a cover for human rights violations. “I fear for all civilians there, cut off and without the necessary means to communicate with people inside and outside the area,” said Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur for Myanmar. Amnesty International has warned of a looming food insecurity crisis in Rakhine. Rights groups say Myanmar’s military tactics against the Arakan Army follow patterns of previous abuses, including its long-running campaign against armed groups in the north, and the 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya, also from Rakhine State, into Bangladesh.
In 2016, donor countries agreed to channel 25 percent of emergency aid to operators based in the countries affected. "Localisation", it was hoped, would foster more legitimacy, relevance, efficiency, and self-reliance. New figures released this week suggest only 3.1 percent went directly to local bodies in 2018. But it depends how you count. Knowing there would be a range of habitual and administrative barriers (as well as a chicken-and-egg problem of finding enough established local NGOs), the 25 percent target had a key proviso: the increased cash could flow via intermediaries (typically UN agencies and international NGOs). A new analysis of Grand Bargain signatories by Local2Global Protection found the target a long way off, with about 14 percent reaching local actors by any route. A third study, the annual progress report on the Grand Bargain, states that few signatories have embraced the "radical changes in policy and operations that localisation requires”.
This week, a White House-led workshop in Bahrain saw the launch of the economic part of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century” for Israel-Palestine peace. Kushner has said his $50 billion investment plan for the occupied Palestinian territories will boost development and reduce dependency on foreign aid, but the proposal has been roundly knocked as unworkable without a peace deal. The White House says the political component of its plan will be released in the future, but no date has been announced. Kushner said the Manama conference demonstrated that the long-running conflict “actually is a solvable problem, economically”, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said investment in the territories was “going to be like a hot I.P.O”, but most influential members of the Palestinian business community declined to attend. Other key players for any future peace were also notably absent: the Palestinian Authority boycotted, there was no official Israeli representation, and Hamas, which rules Gaza, was not invited.
Abortion rates in sub-Saharan Africa rose by 40 percent in countries most reliant on US aid in the wake of anti-abortion measures put into effect under US administrations, according to a new study from The Lancet Global Health. The study examined changes that have occurred between 1995 and 2014, and found that countries that perform or provide counselling on abortion are also key in providing other methods of family planning. The US government policy – backed by the Trump administration and often referred to as the Mexico City policy or the Global Gag Rule – restricts funding to organisations that perform or support abortions. This week, the United States tried to insert anti-abortion language into an annual UN resolution on addressing humanitarian needs, including access to healthcare. US negotiators suggested that countries should offer “voluntary and informed family planning, and other options to avoid abortion… as components of humanitarian response.” The suggestion was rejected, with a vote of 30 to two, and nine abstentions. Only Jamaica voted with the US.
INDIA: An outbreak of acute encephalitis has killed more than 150 children in the northeast Indian state of Bihar, but health officials and Indian authorities aren’t sure what’s causing it or even what to call it. Researchers have previously tied the illness to a chemical in lychees, which are prevalent in the area.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: At least 11,000 people were evacuated after PNG’s Ulawun volcano erupted this week, shooting ash plumes 20,000 metres into the air. The Friday eruption of a separate volcano on Manam Island, to the north of PNG’s mainland, has also sparked concern.
SAFETY: The risk imbalance between local and international aid workers continues to widen, according to new data from the Aid Worker Security Database. The vast majority of aid workers killed are local, but the per capita rate at which they are killed is also higher – and growing – compared to international staff. Researchers say it’s one clear sign of how international groups are transferring risk to their local counterparts in dangerous areas.
UNICEF:Chief Henrietta Fore has announced 12 initial steps to repair UNICEF’s unhealthy work culture, including “matrix management” and more investigators. This came in response to an independent study that found ”unchecked favouritism”, “fiefdoms”, and a “broken complaints system”.
US/MEXICO: Under pressure after a photo went viral of a drowned father and daughter, the US Congress passed a bipartisan $4.59 billion humanitarian aid bill to alleviate the crisis on the southern border. Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly won private assurances over notification of child deaths in custody within 24 hours, and a 90-day limit for keeping children in temporary facilities.
In early May, the World Health Organisation’s panel of experts published new guidelines for the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Amid a spike in cases following suspensions of operations due to attacks on healthcare workers and clinics, the guidelines amounted to a strategic overhaul. Part of it involved vaccinating a lot more people, and, to save limited stocks of vaccines, reducing doses – a recommendation the WHO began rolling out last week. But another recommendation was to double down on the deployment of local responders to combat distrust. In our weekend read, Vittoria Elliott finds that local responders face the lion’s share of risk but receive little protection or recompense. The reality is that local workers often have to return to their own fearful Ebola-stricken villages at night. Transferring responsibility to them is fraught with danger.
Rwandans overwhelmingly trust NGOs. At the other end of the scale, among developing countries, Colombia has the least trust in non-profit organisations. Overall, a large opinion poll commissioned from Gallup by the UK's Wellcome Trust found that 52 percent of people had confidence in charitable organisations and NGOs in their countries. Nearly a third in the 140-nation survey, however, said they had no such confidence. The results come as part of a wider review of attitudes to science. On immunisation, Bangladesh and Rwanda have the strongest confidence in vaccines. The country with the least trust that vaccines are safe? France. The full dataset is available for download.
(TOP PHOTO: A woman salvages items from a destroyed building in the town of Kafranbel in the rebel-held part of the Syrian Idlib province.)
The signs of landslide risk are gouged into the jagged hills surrounding Rangamati town in southeast Bangladesh, where remnants of crushed and battered homes sit alongside expanding hillside settlements.
Two years ago, Masi Jai Marma narrowly escaped with her life when torrential downpours triggered landslides that buried her home under an avalanche of mud.
“When I woke up, I found myself in chest-high mud,” recalled Masi, a member of the Marma, one of 11 indigenous groups from the hill tract districts.
A neighbour dragged her to safety as water and mud gushed through her home. But her nephew and two nieces died. The children were among at least 170 people killed during the June 2017 landslides, which also destroyed or damaged 40,000 homes.
Once rare, casualties from landslides are becoming increasingly common here in the mountainous districts of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, a former conflict zone, as local indigenous communities and landless settlers from other parts of the country rush to build homes on vacant but risky slopes.
The annual monsoon season, which typically begins in June and lasts through October, brings heavy rainfall that can soak the slippery hillsides and dislodge unstable clay soil. Climate change is expected to make extreme weather more volatile and more intense, increasing the likelihood of landslides.
But disaster risk experts and local groups say the dangers are exacerbated by communities themselves, through rapid and unplanned urbanisation. Over more than a decade, the hill tract districts have seen an influx of settlers from more congested parts of Bangladesh.
Instead of adapting to the topography, they’ve imported building techniques better suited to the low-lying plains, carving precarious new homes and farm plots deep into the hillsides.
“The hills are taking revenge on us,” said Shahidul Islam, a professor of geography and environment at Dhaka University, who has studied land use and disaster risk in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The indigenous groups that call this part of Bangladesh home, like Masi Jai’s Marma community, have traditionally adapted to the danger by avoiding the steepest slopes and building stilted homes that allow excess water to pass under, rather than through. But even these traditional practices are being left behind as lightweight material like bamboo becomes more expensive and as more families move to urbanising areas like Rangamati town, local aid workers say.
Disaster risk experts say the government has been slow to adapt. They’re calling on the government to boost early warning and landslide preparedness programmes, and to promote traditional indigenous building practices. Local authorities, however, say the biggest problem is that people are building on unsafe land – and they can’t force everyone to move.
The dynamics driving today’s landslide risk mirror decades-old battles over land rights and autonomy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Starting in the 1970s, a guerrilla group mostly drawn from hill tribe communities launched an insurgency that demanded recognition of indigenous rights.
Waves of government-supported migration in the 1980s saw Bengali settlers move to the area in large numbers, which indigenous communities saw as an attempt to push out the local population. The conflict left at least 2,500 civilians dead and displaced at least 90,000 indigenous people before a peace accord was struck in 1997.
The worst of the violence has subsided, but sporadic unrest has continued in the ensuing years, often rooted in disputes over land. In June 2017, for example, days before the deadly landslides, settlers set fire to hundreds of homes in one part of Rangamati district.
Today, the indigenous communities and the settlers in and around Rangamati town, the administrative capital for the Chittagong Hill Tracts, both live with mounting landslide risks.
“We own no land. Except for this, we have nowhere to go.”
On a hilltop in Rupnagar, a mostly Bengali ward, a simple sign along a steep dirt path offers a stark warning for 41-year-old Anju Barua and some 200 other families living here: “Risky area for landslides,” it reads. “Dwelling prohibited.”
Barua knows the danger: the June 2017 landslides killed several of her neighbours, including the parents of two now-orphaned children. But like most here, she said she can’t afford to move anywhere safer.
“We own no land. Except for this, we have nowhere to go,” Barua said.
In Shimultali, another settler-dominated area, residents are still struggling to rebuild two years later. Nargis Akter, who moved here from central Bangladesh a decade ago, said the landslides damaged 90 percent of the village. She estimated one in every five of the 300 families are still living in makeshift homes.
The stories are similar in Murali Para, a mostly indigenous community. Majupru Marma said she barely survived when neighbours pulled her from the mud. She’s still repairing the damage: her family’s concrete home was destroyed, and the mudslide left her farm plot clogged with unproductive sand and clay.
“We’ll never be able to grow crops here,” she said.
Researchers say landslides have become increasingly dangerous as the most risky areas grow more populated. There were no recorded casualties when significant landslides hit the three hill tract districts, including Rangamati, in 1968, 1970, and in the 1990s.
But the landslides turned deadly in 1999, peaking with dozens of deaths in 2007 and in 2017, according to Bayes Ahmed, a lecturer with the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London who has studied the home-building practices of settler and indigenous communities.
He said indigenous communities generally view the hills as part of their cultural identity. They’ve known for generations how to live in the mountains, building raised homes using lightweight material like bamboo, and constructing in stages against gentler slopes rather than cutting into the hill.
“The tribal people living in the remote and rural hill areas experience few or no landslide disasters,” said Ahmed, who believes preserving and promoting this indigenous knowledge can help reduce disaster risk.
But local aid workers say indigenous communities are losing some of these traditions as they too shift toward urban areas.
Living Stone Chakma, who heads monitoring and evaluation at Green Hill, an indigenous-run NGO in Rangamati, said many of the indigenous families left their homes in remote parts of the district because remnants of the former insurgent groups that once battled the military now clash with each other.
Internal migration, he said, “has gained momentum in the past decade”.
Both indigenous communities and Bengali settlers have clear-cut the surrounding hillsides, he added.
Prasenjit Chakma, who manages a project in the area for the United Nations Development Programme, said indigenous people are also moving to Rangamati in search of education and job opportunities, in addition to escaping the security concerns back home.
"In the past, all knew how to make a stilted house,” he said. “They have forgotten this as they've moved to town areas.”
And the materials used to make traditional homes – bamboo and a specific type of grass – are also becoming increasingly scarce, which raises the cost of construction.
Purna Chandra Chakma, who works for the Centre for Integrated Programme and Development, a local NGO, said landowners have cut down natural bamboo areas in favour of more valuable teak plantations.
Climate change is also feeding landslide risk. The June 2017 landslides came after days of condensed, extreme rainfall: NASA recorded 510 millimetres in the area over a three-day span – nearing levels typically seen over an entire month in June or July.
Climate modelling for the region suggests precipitation may grow more concentrated, unleashing more rain in a shorter time frame, said Atiq Rahman, a scientist who co-authored the vulnerability chapter in a landmark report by the UN body assessing climate research.
Landslides, he said, are “a combination of human activities and natural phenomenon, accentuated by climate change.”
SM Shafi Kamal, the deputy district administrator in Rangamati, said authorities are focused on raising landslide awareness among some 13,000 people believed to be the most at risk.
Early preparations have helped, he said. During heavy rainfall last year, authorities urged people to leave their homes temporarily. Only 11 people died in landslides.
"We can't relocate every person."
But he said authorities still face a quandary: the district doesn’t want to encourage further expansion of risky settlements by building retaining walls that might make the hills safer, nor can it afford to permanently resettle everyone.
"We can't relocate every person," he said.
Islam of Dhaka University said Bangladesh needs to treat landslides as it does other deadly calamities. Bangladesh is a global “role model” for its early warning programmes for cyclones and floods, and yet it’s poorly prepared for landslides, he said.
Ahmed of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction said local authorities should build landslide shelters, which would operate in the same way as the country’s lauded cyclone warning and shelter systems.
Dedicated disaster shelters are common in cyclone-vulnerable coastal areas, but there were none in the hill tracts in 2017 and still none today.
“We had to accommodate 4,000 people in sensitive government establishments like radio and television stations,” said Mohammad Manzarul Mannan, then district administrator.
This monsoon season, the district has designated 21 public buildings as emergency landslide shelters, though this may be inadequate given the town’s population of roughly 35,000.
Conflict kept indigenous groups and settlers divided for years. But in the hillside settlements around Rangamati, both communities are now linked by the risks they face as the monsoon season begins.
In May, Cyclone Fani pummelled eastern India and parts of Bangladesh. It mostly missed this part of the country, but some here lay awake at night, memories of the 2017 landslides rushing through their minds.
Mohammad Kawser’s brother and sister-in-law died in the disaster two years ago. Now he’s raising his two young nieces.
"When I see clouds in the sky,” he said, “I become mentally restless.”
(TOP PHOTO: People in this settler community near Rangamati town have built their homes against parts of a hillside. District authorities say the area is a high-risk landslide zone.)